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A Blue Collar in the Margins of Academia

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A BLUE COLLAR IN THE MARGINS
OF ACADEMIA
Approved by:
______________________________
Professor C. W. Smith
______________________________
Professor Marshall Terry
______________________________
Professor Bonnie Wheeler
A BLUE COLLAR IN THE MARGINS
OF ACADEMIA
A Thesis Presented to the Graduate Faculty of
Dedman College
Southern Methodist University
in
Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements
for the degree of
Master of Arts
with a
Major in English
by
Michael Vangeli
(B.S. Electrical Engineering, University of Missouri)
August 4, 2010
UMI Number: 1480271
All rights reserved
INFORMATION TO ALL USERS
The quality of this reproduction is dependent upon the quality of the copy submitted.
In the unlikely event that the author did not send a complete manuscript
and there are missing pages, these will be noted. Also, if material had to be removed,
a note will indicate the deletion.
UMI 1480271
Copyright 2010 by ProQuest LLC.
All rights reserved. This edition of the work is protected against
unauthorized copying under Title 17, United States Code.
ProQuest LLC
789 East Eisenhower Parkway
P.O. Box 1346
Ann Arbor, MI 48106-1346
Copyright 2006
Michael Vangeli
All Rights Reserved
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
My special thanks to C.W. Smith for seeing me through this process along with Marshall
Terry and the entire staff of the English department at SMU for their time and dedication.
iv
Vangeli, Michael
B.S. University of Missouri, 1989
A BLUE COLLAR IN THE MARGINS
OF ACADEMIA
Advisor: Professor C. W. Smith
Master of Arts conferred August 4, 2010
Thesis completed May 28, 2010
This manuscript is a craft of fiction following a segment of the life of a
protagonist who is an electrician at SMU. It traces both his personal and professional life
and gives the reader a blue-collar point-of-view. Most people only see the highly
polished surface of a university and its academic achievements and the achievements of
the accomplished alumni. Buildings are named for large donors and honors and
honoraria are handed out to a select few in a university’s social spectrum. Beneath the
surface many people work on a daily basis for support services which are not the
university’s core business but without them it could not function. This manuscript takes
the time to fictionalize some of the people at a university and their departments through
their daily lives.
v
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Chapter
Page
1
Work
1
2
Lex
24
3
Vinney
30
4
Claudia
43
5
Lex
56
6
Claudia
59
7
Joe
73
vi
DEDICATION
This book is dedicated to all the hard working staff of SMU who work tirelessly behind
the scenes ensuring the lights are on, the air-conditioning works, and countless other
tasks that support the university.
vii
Chapter 1
Work
When Lex arrived and walked toward the large, brick, windowless building, he
saw the work truck that he and Joe used idling behind it. As he went up the stairs by the
loading dock, the other workers were standing around and smoking, waiting on 8:00 AM.
He nodded and continued through the double doors. Joe greeted him, “We already got
orders.” Joe was smiling at Lex in anticipation of a story from the night before, but when
Lex remained silent the smile slid from his face. Joe filled the gap with, “Summ-bodies
knocked over a pole light. One of the Hadco’s.” He liked to chew his words and spit
them out in his slow Texas drawl. Sometimes he pulled them apart so they were barely
recognizable. Other times he stretched them out in a mockingly childlike voice. Joe
ambled toward the doors and Lex fell in step behind him. They walked past the others on
the dock and punched-in before heading off to their truck.
“Ain’t gunna start getting paid until eight,” someone called after them.
Lex answered the call by holding up his hand with his thumb touching his index
finger and shouting over his shoulder, “That’s okay.” Then he added in a low voice to
Joe, “What is the rush?”
“Ain’t no real rush. Just wanna git goin’. Ya know what I mean?”
“No, not really, but I’ll take your word fer it,” Lex made a half-hearted attempt at
Joe’s accent, but Joe didn’t bite. “Man, you’re half as moody as a woman. You’re
1
smiling one minute and frowning the next,” Lex added, trying to goad Joe into a better
mood but only succeeded in attaining total silence.
They rode with only the noise of the squeaky truck joints and clatter of the engine
between them up to the Law Quad at the north-east corner of campus and parked in one
of the blue service vehicle spots near the downed pole.
“The old Lawyer’s Inn,” Joe said, breaking the silence.
“Yeah, Carr Collins,” Lex replied cautiously. He wasn’t sure if this was an
attempt by Joe to restart conversation or just his usual narration of points that he
generally gave out as if he were a tour guide. Quiz or guide commentary were two of
Joe’s favorite conversation topics, and he spared no one his pearls of trivia.
They got out of the truck and walked to the interior of the Law Quad. The
previous night’s rain left a gray blanket of clouds to obscure the morning sun and the
grounds were wet and marshy. The white stone rotunda in the center of the quad looked
gray like the sky. It served a new function -- a smoking shelter for the law school
students, and they paid it tribute by frequently leaving tokens of their visits upon the
limestone steps leading up to it. Lex had hardly noticed the light pole they had
approached.
Joe was already bent over and looking at the base of the pole, part of which was
still bolted to the concrete foundation. “One more dead soldier.”
“Another dead man in Dedman’s school. You know I think Dedman owns half of
this school, but since Dedman’s dead can a dead man own anything?”
2
“Okay, Dr. Seuss, just go ahead and put some wire nuts on the ends coming out of
the ground in case the photocell pulls in and I’ll go get the base off the truck.” With that
Joe stood up, readjusted his pants, and headed back to the truck.
As Lex finished with the wire nuts and began to straighten up, he felt a pair of
eyes on his back. Slowly he turned to face the assistant dean of the law school. “How
soon can you fix it?” she inquired, pointing at it with her still-wrapped newspaper. Its
blue wrapper proudly proclaimed itself as the New York Times. She returned it sharply
to its position under her arm as she stood and stared alternately from the light pole to Lex.
Her dark eyes then fixed solely on Lex.
“It will get our most immediate attention, Dean. You are our first and foremost
customer of the day. You have our undivided attention.” Lex surveyed her face for a
hint of more than her granite stare, but there was nothing. Only her eyes moved and they
refocused on the light pole once again.
“The Mitchells will be here at 9:00 am for a reception.” She stopped so the
thought of the Mitchells might have a more grave effect upon him, but since he hadn’t the
slightest idea of who they were he could not be impressed. She pressed on, softening
slightly, “It doesn’t have to function. Just stand it up so it looks proper.”
“Yes, ma’am, Dean Mansfield,” he replied, hoping that Joe would return shortly
to take some of the ire she apparently had for their department. A feeling came over Lex
reminiscent of his youth when the principal would ask him if he had been keeping up
with his homework and studying. Lex waited without saying anything else, unsure of
whether it was appropriate to explain how they were going to fix it or just remain quiet
3
and hope she would remember something else more important to micromanage. He
shifted slightly and noticed that Joe had stopped at the corner of Carr Collins and was
waiting for the dean to leave. “There’s my partner now!” he bellowed out toward Joe.
Instinctively, she turned and looked at Joe. As he approached she said, “Well,
then, I’ll leave you to it. Please have your boss call me if there are any problems meeting
the deadline. Thank you.”
“No, thank you,” Lex replied, smiling broadly. He knew this would annoy Joe
more than his ploy to draw him out. He watched her turn and smooth the side of her skirt
with her hand. As she started up the steps of Storey Hall, he said in a quiet voice to Joe,
“You know, I think she is more of a spring/summer person and a nice lilac or lavender
shirt would go better with the black suit and coat than the ox-blood red she is wearing
now. Maybe your wife could come and find out her true season?”
Joe slapped Lex’s chest with the back of his free hand, “Thanks, but you’ve
already drug me fer enough into this quagmire. Did you get the old base off?”
“Base off? No, it’s been just the usual morning pleasantries, you know the ever
adoring fans come to admire and praise my work.” Lex’s mouth continued to run while
he unbolted the old base and put the new one on. He felt the water soak through his pants
and when he got up his knees left water-filled impressions in the soil.
As they lifted the pole on to the new base Joe broke the silence, “What is it with
you and her?”
4
“I dunno. Maybe it is that once the illusion of sexual attraction between a man
and a woman is erased there is no longer a need for the man to pretend to like the
woman.”
“God, I don’t know why I bother. Wait, you’re just crabby ‘cause you didn’t get
lucky last night?” Joe beamed at Lex as if he had the ultimate answer to universe.
“Why can’t it be that we just don’t get along and that woman wouldn’t pour water
on my head if my brain was on fire? Or maybe it’s just that I ain’t got the same silver
tongue that you got.”
“If you could lick your eyebrows then it wouldn’t matter what you said to the
ladies. That’s how I got my gal.”
“Whata you been smokin’ this morning? You got her ‘cause you was on the
football team in small town Texas and you was the only one with a full set of teeth.” Lex
decided he needed to soften it up a bit. “But don’t worry, you’re twice the man you were
then,” he added, slapping Joe’s belly with the back of his hand. He looked at Joe and
tried to imagine a younger man running with the ball tucked under his arm knocking
players out of the way as he scored the winning touchdown, just like in the movies.
Lex knew that reality had a bit less shine to Joe Anderson’s high school football
career. He had listened to bits and pieces of Joe’s story until it all came together like a
patchwork quilt. Joe came from a small Texas town and had the opportunity to play ball.
They did fairly well but never were good enough to have much more than a winning
season. Anderson had allowed himself the illusion that his football career would carry
him on to college. He had been swept up by the fever that grips a small town holding its
5
alumni to the only fame they would ever see and the false bravado that told them they
were the best. Joe found out too late that his talents would not get him a football
scholarship and all his efforts focused on football were fruitless. By the time this reality
caught up with him, his academic career had long since faded. On the sunny afternoon
when he and the team stood in the gym in front of the assembled school and the
Lampasas football alums, he collected his last applause for football from the community
and became mortal again. It was not that his efforts were unappreciated, just that there
was a limit to their currency. Senior privilege had opened some doors for him and he was
drawn to the higher than average wage of the electrical trade. After being an apprentice
for a couple of years, he took his newly graduated girlfriend and made her his wife then
moved to Big D. Diane had never gone anywhere without her parents until then.
At first they hung on to each other so tightly that they never realized they were
hungry, scared, and broke. Eventually, Joe had told him, through his construction work,
he had found a permanent opening at SMU and took advantage of the health benefits as
their first child was born. Somehow their marriage survived numerous extended visits
from Diane’s mother and the next two baby girls. Joe was never sure how to handle the
girls. They seemed to have been born with their minds already made up. He had no
willpower to discipline the girls and would frequently help to break any embargo
imposed by their mother. As they grew up he thickened around the waist and transitioned
from athlete to spectator. He came to enjoy the suburban life of going to Saturday soccer
games, children’s birthday parties, etc. He was even happy doing the yard work around
6
the house. Diane liked to accuse him of using it as an escape from them, but she didn’t
mind their traditional roles.
Lex tried to read the furrowed look on Joe’s face and finally asked, “What’s
bugging you?”
“Nothin’,” Anderson replied as he gathered their tools.
The silence of short walk back to the truck was broken only by the sound of their
tools being tossed in the back. Joe picked up thier clipboard from the cab and flipped a
page up to read the next work order. Without a word he got in and leaned toward the
steering wheel, cocking his head as he did so to listen to the motor crank. The truck
responded with a stuttering attempt at starting. He waited and turned the key a second
time and it started. Joe gave the metal dashboard a gentle pat, still listening to the motor.
The old 1973 Chevrolet truck had seen its best years pass by three decades ago. “What it
lacks in safety equipment it makes up for in class. Buckle up, Buddy, here we go!” Joe
winced as he grabbed the shifter and heard the grinding of gears as he shifted into first
then found his way to reverse to back out of the parking spot.
“Who cares where we go?” Lex shrugged, “All we do is drive in circles anyway.”
Lex’s eye followed a young coed who had come out the door of the Carr Collins
building. “Speaking of illusions,” he said as he watched her toss her hair and turn toward
Dallas Hall, the first building that established the Hilltop. “Maybe it’s time to do some
work in Dallas Hall.” His eyes remained fixed on her slender figure as it swayed slightly
from side to side and she faded into the shade of the live oaks lining the sidewalk. His
left hand absently groped for the clipboard and he banged it on the dash before refocusing
7
on the page that Joe had arranged to be on top. He scanned the page without reading.
After a brief moment he tossed it on the dash and rubbed his eyes while exhaling loudly.
Lex said, “Do you remember the bartender from that place last night? Aw, never mind,
that’s right, you had ta go home right after work and I went ta play.” Lex smiled at Joe.
“Sure, make up something I can’t verify.” Joe stretched out verify into “ver-i-fy.”
He wanted to say more but held his tongue, secretly hoping that Lex had some interesting
story to tell about the last night’s adventure. Joe waited for the sordid details.
“Well, while you was a home in bed, I was socializing. I went over to the Tavern
and just before I left this cute little bartender came in.”
“Male or female?” Joe quipped.
“Funny. But I didn’t say I was on Cedar Springs. No it was this chick and she
had these ear cuff things, you know.”
“No, actually I don’t.”
“You know those cuff things around the top part of her ears.”
“Not pierced?”
“No, just cuffs”
“I thought those were out.”
“Do you want to hear the story or not? Not like you’re some fashion ex-pert.”
Just then Joe stepped heavily on the brake, forcing Lex to catch himself on the
dash with one hand. “We’re here,” Joe said, smiling.
“I gathered.” Lex jumped out of the truck and slammed the door. “What are we
getting here? Breakfast?”
8
They had stopped at Umphrey Lee, a low, sprawling, red brick building which
held the economics and communications departments, and the main dining hall. Joe liked
to handle the work orders for the dining area just after breakfast and lunch because most
of the cashiers would let him sneak a snack. As they wound their way through the
building and down to the entrance of the dining room, Joe looked for a familiar face. As
he walked in he smiled and said, “Good morning, Alice.” Alice had just scanned a young
coed’s debit card and the screen displayed the balance left on the card. Alice’s look
never changed. She had seen balances more than she made in a year but that no longer
amazed her.
Handing the card back to its owner, Alice answered, “Mornin'. If ya’ll are hungry
just get ya’ll a little something.” Her muffled words combined with her southern accent
were often met with stares from some of the “Yankees” who immigrated to the great state
of Texas. She smiled and nodded at them, then shifted slightly on her stool in a motion
which gave them permission to enter and dismissed them at the same time. Alice exuded
the matronly confidence of an African queen, while welcoming people with her cherubic
smile. She would on occasion be found giving hugs to the least suspecting people who
she felt “Just needed a hug.”
They thanked her and moved through the milling crowds of young eaters to the
center island of kitchen equipment, Lex felt himself age twenty years. He became aware
of the weight that adulthood had given both his demeanor and his body. Still, he smiled,
smelling the recently cooked bacon and sausage. Absently he raised his arm to use the
back of his sleeve to wipe his mouth. His eyes caught a glimpse of his blue work shirt
9
and he felt out of place, like an escaped prisoner still in an orange jumpsuit who shows up
in church. He looked around as his ears picked up pieces of conversations on the
periphery. Random words struck his ears and formed a level of noise that all but blocked
out his own thoughts. It was his mild hunger and the scent of the kitchen that kept him
on point. The students themselves took no notice of them anywhere on campus, and if
one of them ever addressed him or Joe it was always appended with a “Sir.” “Yes, sir.
No sir. Excuse me sir.” Somewhere in his years of working for a college, his youth had
faded away.
The students would enter college as scared young colts neading to be weaned
from their parents. Gradually, they grew accustomed to college life, some even liberated
themselves further in the “Real World.” Lex hadn’t had the benefit of a safety net since
he turned eighteen. He’d moved out to prove his parents wrong and show them that he
could manage his own affairs and survive on his own. His quality of life was somewhat
diminished at first, but it was bolstered by his pride. He didn’t need his father’s help to
pay the bills.
Looking back, he couldn’t reconstruct the forces that compelled him to leave
home, but he was certain now that it was his only choice at the time. Somehow
everything inside him had welled up and burst out all at once, and the only focal point at
the time was his parents. “I just gotta be on my own,” he told his dad. His mother had
tried to mediate the conversation as if it were a conflict, but his dad just agreed. “I don’t
know exactly what I’ll do, but I gotta do it. Whatever it is.” His dad never really argued
with Lex, only looked at him with his lips drawn tightly across his face and asked, “You
10
sure?” That was his dad’s way of saying, “I think you’re making a mistake.” Mistake or
no, Lex moved out and worked his way up through the construction industry to learn a
trade.
After high school he couldn’t bring himself to take any more tests, so he was
stuck knowing how to do the electrical work but never taking the test to prove it and
become a journeyman electrician. This suited him well enough. At first he liked being
off in the early afternoons and getting tan in the summer. Then working through a winter
of outdoor work in cold and wet conditions had convinced him of the need, as his father
put it, “to improve his situation.” They had argued over it for a while. His dad told him,
“Look, you can do a little better if you get a steady job doing electrical work, if that’s
what you want to do. There are companies that would hire you as an apprentice and
teach you how to be a journeyman, then you can get a better job, more money, and
improve your situation.”
Lex told him, “I like my situation as you say. I’m already making good money
for a guy my age.”
“Without a college education,” his father interrupted.
“Okay. Whatever.” After that Lex just left the conversation open and continued
to work for a while, get laid off, and find another job. Eventually, while perusing the job
listings, he saw that Southern Methodist University offered an opening. It turned out to
be less than he was used to making, but at the time he was unemployed. Richard Garmin
had interviewed him over the phone and in person. Lex was not used to explaining his
work experience much more that his last few jobs. Garmin demanded more and more
11
information, and sent Lex home wondering how it went. After a couple of weeks when
he had almost forgotten the interview he got a call from Garmin offering him the job.
Looking back, Lex hated the idea that he had taken the job without trying to negotiate a
higher pay rate, but he thought at the time, “Beggars can’t be choosers.” Lex’s dad had
liked the idea from the start, and it was almost too much for Lex. He feared his father
had intervened in some fashion to help him get the job in the hope that the offer of a free
education would put him on the track to get a degree.
“What’re we here for, partner?” he asked Joe’s back. “That is, besides a snack for
your rotundness?”
“There’s a starter that keeps trippin’ out.”
“So we’re taking a shortcut through the dining room to cut through the kitchen to
go to the back stairs to go to the basement?”
“When ya say it like that it sounds so long.” Joe smiled and said hello to each of
the workers as they walked through the kitchen. Most of the kitchen staff looked at them
like wary antelope watching the lions cross the savannah. Some responded to Joe’s smile
and the head chef got up from behind his desk in the glass office and came to the door to
watch them come through the kitchen. He stood there with his arms crossed like a
bouncer in a bar.
He put his hand up, and they halted. Then he stroked his dark face contemplating
what to say. “What’ch ya do’in in muh kitch-en?” It was more an accusation than a
question. He was a formidable ex-marine who didn’t appreciate unannounced visitors.
12
Joe smiled naturally and looked down at his ID badge, turning it so his name and
photo could be clearly seen. “Just gotta do my work. Somebody’s complaining that the
exhaust fan’s quit for the kitchen.” Joe looked down at his clipboard and asked, “You
Russell Camron?”
“Yeah, that’s me. Go ahead. Just make sure ya’ll come see me after ya’ll are
done.” Almost before he finished he spun on his heels back in to his office.
By the basement stairs they could smell the sweetness of the fresh pastries and
cookies in the bakery room. Slowly, they descended into the basement and the odor of
old cooking oil filled their noses. The finish on the walls at the bottom of the stairwell
had deteriorated to the point that it was no longer the usual gray color. Stagnant air
rested outside the door to the mechanical room while Joe fumbled for keys under the
burnt-out fixture. “That should be on somebody’s list,” Joe said, looking and pointing
upward. “If they had their shit together they could of given us both at the same time,” he
said, opening the door.
“Too efficient,” Lex replied. “Which one is it?”
“Number two. Right over here.” Joe moved over to a small grey box on the wall
and pulled the cover off, exposing wires. He looked at it for a second and pulled out a
screwdriver and began to tighten the connections. “That’s probably it right there. The B
phase was loose.”
“Why is an exhaust fan in the basement, anyway?”
“It’s not really an exhaust fan for the kitchen, it’s a blower.”
“So what’s it blow?” he said, smiling at his sophomoric joke.
13
“It just pressurizes the double door area from the loading dock. Apparently, it
takes air from AHU #2 and sends it to the dock area. The reason the kitchen guys know
it is broke is because that’s where they stand and smoke. And if it ain’t working then the
smell of smoke seeps back into the kitchen. It’s really for the exhaust from trucks but
mainly gets used from kitchen smokers. Mr. Camron likes his cigars. Them nasty old
smelly things, I’m surprised he wasn’t chewing on one of them when he saw us. He’s
generally the first to notice ‘cause he uses it the most.” As he finished talking Joe closed
the cover and hit the reset. They heard the motor start and listened to it for a while.
“Got your Amprobe?” Lex asked.
“No. Why?”
“Just thought we could take a reading and see if it was running high.”
“They know our number,” Joe said, smiling. “We’ll just watch it for a minute and
go on up, talk to Camron, and see which way the wind blows.”
“Man, Garmin will be all over us if we get called back on this.”
“You want to get your meter?” Joe waited as Lex thought about the long walk
back to the truck.
“Okay, I’ll get mine and you meet me on the loading dock. If it’s still running
when I get back then we’ll skip it. In the mean time, you can talk nice to Mr. Camron
and see if he’ll let you have a snack.”
They both plodded back up the stairs and Lex cut through the kitchen, dodging
the steam and white-coated workers who stared at him through the vapors. Lunch time
would be upon them soon and a flood of students would wash over the tidy serving lines.
14
They descended like locusts, gobbling up the food and flying away again. Lex scanned
the room and he wondered what it would be like to have nothing to do but study. He felt
the air chill around him and realized the cold stare of woman eyeing his blue uniform.
Her eyes bore down upon him as her frown deepened and eyebrows furrowed. His eyes
turned toward the door and his pace quickened. He felt his cheeks begin to flush. As he
came to the doors a large student pushed one open and Lex quickly caught the handle to
hold it open and turn his back on the room.
Lex escaped the dining hall and sprinted up the stairs to the parking lot. The sun
had become a blinding ball of fire in the sky as the morning clouds cleared. This forced
him to squint as he glanced around the lot. The sunshine had erased his mind and he
couldn’t decide where to go and what he was doing. His eyes adjusted to the light, and
his mind eased. He found the truck and hopped in behind the wheel. He groped for the
key in the ashtray and he winced at the metal-on-metal sound of it as he pulled it open.
Inserting the key in the ignition, he was happy to hear it crank. Fighting the urge to flee,
he drove around to the loading dock. He backed down the steep incline to the loading
dock where Joe gobbled up the last of his snack. The walls around the ramp hid them
from the passers-by and there was nobody to sneer at their uniforms.
Lex got out of the truck and yelled ahead, “Don’t worry, I’m not your wife! I
don’t care what kind-a crap you eat.” Lex began to rub his arms as he walked up the
ramp.
15
“It’s still running,” Joe said, spitting out crumbs as he spoke. He looked back at
Cameron who was standing with his arms crossed in front of the doors to the kitchen.
“Let’s just get.”
“Ok.”
Joe drove up the west side of the campus while Lex watched the lawn crew
covering every square inch of the main quadrangle, clipping, trimming, and cutting the
triangular patches of grass between the sidewalks. The sidewalks crisscrossed the quad
up, down and diagonally—wherever the students tended to walk. The center piece was a
fountain. It was a simple arrangement with one large ring shooting toward a center
nozzle that tossed the water ten feet into the air. The sun was forcing him to squint as he
looked out the window. He could see the mowers stop when a student approached, which
happened so frequently he couldn’t understand how it ever got completely mowed. Stopmow-stop-mow, the maddening pace constantly renewed itself.
One of the plumbers was looking at each of the small nozzles in the outer ring of
the fountain and running a small metal brush into the clogged ones. It always seemed
like such a nice job to have in the summer but not year round, not even in Texas. Slowly
the quad faded from his view as they drove around behind Dallas Hall. As they pulled
into the blue parking spot marked “Service Vehicles,” Joe killed the engine and turned to
examine his partner. “You okay?” he asked.
“Fine.” With that they climbed out and headed into the building. Joe led the way,
stepping on the limestone stairs which had been polished and dished out by millions of
other footfalls. Their footsteps echoed up the stairwell and crossing the rotunda on the
16
first floor they became conscious of every sound they made. They slowed to walk
lighter, and as Lex looked at Joe he pointed to the hallway leading west. Their ears
ignored the small portions of class lectures which leaked out the open doors. Instead,
they tuned to the noise of their footfalls as if each step would sound some alarm and
cause a disruption in the classrooms.
Joe stopped at the end of the hall and glanced in at the professor in the classroom
then at the ceiling. “I’ll get the ladder,” he whispered and left Lex to eavesdrop on the
class. He glanced nervously into the classroom as he walked by stopping in front of the
picture window at the end of the hall. The window was positioned under the stairs,
leaving an odd zigzag shadow on the floor. Standing at parade rest he realized he had
walked right past a student sitting on the stairs with his nose in a book. He wanted to nod
“hello” but there was no movement from the student save his fingers as they moved back
and forth across the page. Lex moved closer to the room and as other students began to
fill the hall. Silently, he listened in:
“So, imagine you’re feeling a little low and your parents invite some of your
college chums over the house to cheer you up. It could happen anywhere. Here at SMU
or even let’s say if you went to one of those other schools like, let’s say, Yale.” Some of
the students laughed and Lex listened further for the punch line. “So that’s what
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are there to do, cheer up Hamlet. Let’s imagine over break
that you’re feeling a little down, your parents would give you permission to have a few
friends over to the castle, right? I know when I was in college I might occasionally have
a friend or two over for a small libation, although none of them were princes or even
17
presidents-to-be.” Again laughter issued forth at this last statement and Lex strained to
hear more over the growing din in the hall. “The king and queen do not ask too much,
simply to find out what is making Hamlet so sad, they are concerned parents, actually
mother and father/uncle. All they ask is that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tell them
what, ‘afflicts him thus.’ Now let me ask you: would you report to your friend’s parents
what is bothering your friend? What’s a parent to do?” With the gathering noise in the
hall, Lex had slid along the wall until his shoulder was touching the doorway to the
classroom.
More voices spoke from within, “What would you do if your son was seeing the
ghost of his dead father?” “Who talks directly to their parents nowadays?” The sounds
from within the classroom began to rise to equal the level in the hall and Lex looked at
the clock as the minute hand moved from 47 to 48. He saw Joe trying to weave his way
through with the eight-foot ladder, holding it upright, dancing with it through the crowd.
Suddenly, a torrent of students poured from the classrooms into the hall. Joe had
managed to make it to the door. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead just as he
reached up to wipe them off.
After the stream slowed they entered the classroom while a few students gathered
their books and a couple stood around the professor in close conference. Joe set the
ladder under the flickering light and Lex scrambled up it, opened the fixture, and began
to take the lamps out and hand them down to Joe. The professor looked up and said,
“Now perhaps we will be able to shed some light on the subject.” Lex smiled politely
and continued to work.
18
A soft female voice asked, “I want to know if Hamlet really loved Ophelia?”
The professor answered, “Perhaps that is best judged by how he feels after
learning of her death.”
“Or is it all an act?” Lex looked down to see a lanky blond-haired boy bobbing
and nodding his head at the young coed. “Yeah, thanks professor, see you later,” he said
over his shoulder, halfway to the door clutching his book bag.
The professor looked from Lex to the girl, saying, “We should retreat before the
heavens open further.”
When they left Joe looked at Lex and asked, “You done yet?”
Lex had the cover off to expose the wiring and was cutting some wires and
unscrewing. Finally, he removed a black rectangular metal block and handed it down.
“Looks like we need another ballast,” he said.
“Ow, jeeze this is hot,” Joe said, setting it heavily on the teacher’s desk.
Reaching behind his back, he pulled a new ballast from his hip pocket. “Here ya go,” he
said, handing it up.
“Aw I didn’t know you cared, or even carried one.” Lex finished wiring the new
ballast. The new students filed in and sat down in a large circle around Joe and Lex.
Another professor came in and set his books heavily upon the desk. Lex continued to
work steadily putting the fixture back together.
“We’re almost done, sir,” Joe said, to the professor, who seemed ten years
younger than he.
19
“Well, I hope so. We have a lot to cover today,” he said, looking up just as the
corners of his mouth turned down slightly.
Joe handed the lamps back up to Lex and they silently completed the task. Lex
retreated into the hall as Joe followed with the ladder. Neither one said anything as they
walked back to the truck. Tossing the ladder up on the rack of the truck, Joe shook his
head and said, “That’s why I don’t go to school here.”
“And I thought it was because they wouldn’t let you in,” Lex said in the dead
even tone of the young professor.
“I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”
“Okay, Groucho, where to next?” In the truck Joe scanned the clipboard again,
flipping between pages.
“I think we’re done until lunch. We’ve done enough for the morning. That there
was an hour job, so all we need to do is lie low for a while and slide on in at lunch.”
“Gimme that,” Lex said. He scanned the list, “Here’s something,” he said, “A
new data outlet in Hyer. That’s easy. It’s on the top floor and all we gotta do is fish it
down the wall and across the attic.”
Joe rolled his eyes and began to scratch his arms. “That attic just gets to me with
the insulation and all.”
“God, you’re a weasel. Look, it’s on our way back and all we need to do is run it
from the wall across a small portion of the ceiling. It can’t be more than thirty feet.”
Joe shook his head and started the truck. They watched several cars zoom by
before they slowly backed out and drove the short distance to the east along the road
20
where it curved southward into a three-way stop facing the north end of the building.
Both Joe and the truck grunted as he turned the wheel in a fanatical motion to the left.
The truck crept into the parking lot. Joe eased it into the parking space then solidly hit
the curb, jolting Lex forward. He had to catch himself on the dash to avoid hitting his
head on the windshield. Silently, they dismounted and Lex gathered up wire and a reel
for fishing it down the walls. They followed some of the late students into the building
and walked up the stairs, ignoring the elevator. After two flights Joe’s breath was heavy
and labored. His steps grew heavier and he began to grip the railing. Lex eased on up,
carrying the tools, and waited at the top of the stairs looking back down.
Joe wagged his finger at Lex breathlessly. “I’m taking the, the elevator next
time.”
Lex smiled at him and turned around to face a woman seated at a desk. Before he
was able to change his expression she returned the smile from behind her small round
glasses. Her dark hair was pulled up neatly in a ponytail and she exhibited all of the
qualities one might picture in a stern librarian with the exception of her smile, which
looked out of place to Lex. Suddenly, he flushed, thinking that she had been staring at
him as he was gamely teasing Joe. He began to stammer at Joe while keeping his eyes
fixed on the woman, “Wha, what’s that number? The one on da work order?”
Joe strolled over and asked, “Excuse me, ma’am, can you tell me where 304B is
located?”
21
She rose up from behind the desk and waved at the door to her left. “It’s right
here. Do you need to get in?” she asked as she reached back to her desk and gathered up
a large key ring.
“He does. We’re going to put another data jack on the west wall,” Joe said,
walking over to Lex and taking the box of wire from him and disappearing around the
corner. His voice came back saying, “Just run the fishtape up and I’ll find it and tie on to
it.”
Lex smiled again at the woman as she unlocked the door. She hesitated at the
entrance and he turned sideways to slide by. When he was inside the office, she asked,
“Do you need anything else? I mean do you know where it goes?”
He could not read anything in her stern blue eyes and finally replied, “If there
isn’t a particular spot, I’ll just put it right about the middle?” Her blasé expression did
not change. She nodded and returned to her chair. He slowly moved a visitor’s chair out
of the way and tapped on the wall with his screwdriver before taking his pliers out of his
hip pocket to use as a hammer. After knocking a small hole in the wall, he took the metal
fishtape out and fed it up the wall listening to it bounce off the drywall until it reached the
top. Suddenly, there was a large tug and he knew that Joe had grabbed it. He waited and
stole a look at the woman while she pecked away at the keyboard of her computer. He
wanted to say something to her, but his mind melted away in that office, looking at the
occupant’s diplomas and accolades. Suddenly, the fishtape jumped and snapped.
“Looks like you caught something there.” A deep voice surprised him almost as
much as the fishtape.
22
“Yes, sir. I caught your data line,” he said, pulling the wire tape down the wall
and then out the hole with a light blue cable attached. He gave it two quick tugs to gather
some slack and let Joe know he had it, then cut it loose from the fish tape and wound it in
a small loop, keeping it secure with a wrap of electrical tape. “There you go. Now all
you need is ITS to terminate it and activate it.” Lex turned to find the owner of the voice
and saw the man descending into the high-back chair behind the desk.
“How did you know that I wanted it on that wall?” the man asked, folding his
arms and cupping each elbow with a hand. His tweed jacket stereo-typed him as a
professor complete with the patches of suede on the elbows which he silently caressed.
“I didn’t. I jess put it on the west wall where the work order said.” His eyes
darted toward the window outside the room to be certain which way was truly west.
“Did you presume that I knew when I asked for the west wall?”
Lex had to fight the urge to respond immediately with the first thing that came to
mind. As the thoughts jumped, a reasonable desire to maintain his present employment
kept his tongue in check as he glanced at the diploma on the wall. His eyes darted back
to the secretary hoping for a friendly face. Her eyes did not find him; instead, Joe came
back and said, “We ready?”
Lex turned to Professor Tweed and asked, “Is that the location you wanted it in?”
Professor Tweed nodded while Lex silently cleaned up the crumbs of the drywall
before adding, “Yes, that is where I wanted it, thank you.”
Joe nodded back and smiled back at the professor then absently rubbed and
sniffed his nose. Lex straightened himself up and moved out the door with the debris, Joe
23
quickly moved in and returned the chair to its original place which was marked by four
indentations in the carpet.
“Is that okay, Sir?” he asked.
“Yes, fine, thank you. Any idea when ITS will be here?” the professor inquired.
Joe was already shaking his head in anticipation of the question. “I see, well, goodbye
then.” The professor held a polite smile for a moment as Joe smiled and bowed out of the
room.
24
Chapter 2
Lex
Lex looked around the reception area cupping the debris in his hand. His eyes
came to rest on the desk nameplate: Anna Torres. While he read her name she reached
under the desk and pulled out the wastebasket and set it on the side of the desk for him,
pivoting to the side as she set it down. He forced himself to smile and moved to drop the
debris. He let the debris slide off his calloused hands and focused on her knees which
peeked out from under her black skirt. She rested her hands passively in her lap while he
finished dusting off his hands over the trash can. He could almost hear the grating sound
of his rough skin. Feeling her stare he looked up and caught her eyes then stammered,
“I’m, um, I’m Lex.”
“I can see that,” she said, referring to his name badge sewn to his uniform shirt.
He straightened up, offered her his hand, and withdrew it when he saw the
drywall dust on it. He tried to wipe it off on his pants then said, “Sorry, I’m a bit of a
mess right now.”
“Well, maybe sometime when you’ve cleaned up a bit then,” she said, returning
the wastebasket to its hidden spot under the desk along with her legs.
“Have a nice day,” he said, noticing the professor standing in the doorway. Lex
gave a short wave to both, turned, and concentrated on making his footsteps as quiet as
possible in his thick-soled boots. Walking away he heard them talking and noticed she
25
gave a polite little laugh to Professor Tweed’s small joke. Lex stared intently at the
railing, descended the stairs, and tried to think of a better introduction than the one he
choked out. His mind played out short combinations trying to find something which
sounded sophisticated and interesting. Slowly and silently he found his way to the truck.
Back in the truck, Joe drove the short distance to the shop. They could see the
smokers gathered on the back loading dock like birds on a wire. “Lunch time,” Joe
beamed. He smiled, “Turkey sandwich time.” His stomach growled audibly in
anticipation as they pulled into one of the few remaining parking spaces. When the front
tires bumped the curb, they both swayed slightly. He flipped the gear shift into park and
turned the truck off. “What ya got fer lunch?” he asked, inclining his head toward Lex.
Still staring straight ahead Lex responded, “I’m not really hungry, I’m just gunna
take a nap. Just roll down the window and I’ll wait for you here.”
“Nope, not allowed. You know the do’s and don’ts. And you don’ts sleep in the
company trucks, no matters what the time, yours or theirs. Come on, I’ll give you one of
my sandwiches. It’s a toasted turkey with lettuce, tomato and mayo. I smoked it myself
last weekend.” While Joe waited for a response from his partner, the truck began to
warm up from the heat the day. “Come on,” Joe said again, giving Lex’s thigh a slap
with the back of his hand.
Lex gave an expression that made him look like he might have chewed the
offending hand off had he been more energetic. In the end, though, he got out and
followed Joe to the door, up the short flight of stairs, past the smokers, and finally into
the dingy break room. An assortment of used office chairs and conference tables
26
cluttered the center of the room while used equipment, both tools and parts, lined the
walls. Some of the other workers were already eating their microwaved leftovers or were
waiting in line to heat them up. Lex fell into a large black vinyl chair that was showing
its stuffing from all corners. The arm rests had lost most of the padding and people had
begun to write on the wood that stuck out like a compound fracture. He had barely
closed his eyes when he heard Joe sit heavily in the chair next to him. Forcing himself to
keep his eyes closed, he listened to the sorting and organizing of Joe’s lunch. He knew
that Joe would evaluate each portion and eventually offer a sandwich to Lex. He wasn’t
disappointed.
“Here ya go,” Joe said, tossing a sandwich toward Lex. Joe unwrapped the
aluminum foil and pulled out a bag of potato chips. He gripped a large, oversized
thermal mug of homemade tea that looked like a plastic version of a Viking stein. He
crunched loudly on the chips while carefully unfolding the foil. “It’s good. Try it,” he
encouraged.
“Okay, okay. I’ll eat it,” Lex smiled encouragingly as he nodded. Slowly he
unwrapped it and began to eat. Garmin came through the double doors near the loading
dock and walked past the tables into his office. Lex’s eyes followed Garmin through the
glass door of the office.
Garmin slipped behind the weathered desk and started hitting the keyboard,
searching for each key. His hunt and peck, two-fingered style was laboriously slow and
each key frustrated him a little more until he finished. A look of satisfaction swept over
his face as he hit the last key and sent the message into cyberspace. He took a moment to
27
smooth his hair back which was already perfectly combed back. Shortly thereafter he
was interrupted by a curly headed woman. Her fingers constantly twirled her chestnut
hair while she talked to Garmin. He leaned back at first and then rocked forward, moving
to lean across the desk. She moved forward half a step so that her shiny black shoe slid
under the leading edge of the desk. Her tan skin was darkened further by the nylons
encasing her plump legs. Garmin strained to maintain eye contact and not lower his gaze.
Their brief conversation ended and she disappeared into the hallway.
“What’s up with them?” Lex asked, nodding toward Garmin who was again
alone in his office and typing on the computer in the same hunt and peck fashion.
“Whadda ya mean?” Joe said, obviously turning toward the office. “I don’t see
nobody but Garmin. Is he doing okay? I mean it looks like he’s losing weight.”
“Compared to you everyone looks thin,” Lex retorted and continued his thought,
“he always seems interested in talking to her.”
Joe took more interest in his food and didn’t bother to indulge Lex’s gossip. Lex
turned to a review of Garmin’s resume. “How long’s he been here? Didn’t he start out
as plumber?”
Joe munched on his food and spit out the words between the bites, “I dunno. Why
don’t you ask him yourself?” After another thoughtful bite of his sandwich he added,
“Yeah.”
Finished with the sandwich, Lex dusted the crumbs off his fingers and waited for
something more to be connected to his last word. Rising he said, “Save my seat.” He
moved toward the door. Garmin gave the keyboard one last angry keystroke and pushed
28
the keyboard away. He spun out of his chair and into the hallway. The hall door had just
closed as Lex entered and he followed Garmin into the hall. He could hear the
conversation between Garmin and the woman. She was reassuring him that she could
take care of entering the work order into the system. Garmin was restraining his usual
string of curse words standing anxiously by her desk. Lex could see Garmin leaning over
the counter. Jogging left, Lex slurped some water from the fountain before casually
strolling past the office where Garmin and the woman were talking. Garmin’s words had
slowed and his pitch had lowered. Lex didn’t want to interrupt and moved silently by
and out the front doors. Standing under the covered porch, he squinted and looked out at
the busy intersection. There were cars rolling through the stop signs with the occasional
pedestrian trying to cross. The drivers seemed annoyed at the inconvenience of actually
coming to a complete stop.
The heat of the day had gathered itself together with the humidity to oppress the
people and force them to remain in their conditioned spaces. Lex watched the drivers
talking on their cell phones, some waving and gesturing as they did so. “Hang up and
drive,” he said aloud before catching himself. The sweat gathered inside his shirt and
trickled down until his waistband soaked it up. He slipped a thumb inside his belt and
wondered if he could loosen it a notch. His mind drifted back to the girl at the bar and
then the secretary. He mused as he walked while his feet took him up the sidewalk in the
side entrance, where he stopped in front of the vending machines to ponder his choices.
One of the workers from the grounds department came up and smiled at him, nodding
toward the machine. “Nah, you go ahead.”
29
“Gracias,” the man replied as he smoothed a dollar bill. The bill had been
crinkled and stowed in his pocket behind the name tag that read: Vinney. His morning
labors had soaked the bill and he tried to feed its limp body into the bill changers of the
Coke machine but it wouldn’t even start. He tried to smooth it out on the side of the
machine and then searched for change in his pocket. Lex found a dry, crisp bill in his
wallet and traded the man. “Gracias,” he said again, nodding to Lex as he uncapped the
soda. Lex tucked the damp bill into his shirt pocket, used one of his dry bills to buy his
soda, and wandered back to his break room. On the way as the man opened the door to
the garage he could hear the sounds of a pool table and numerous voices speaking in
Spanish. He couldn’t understand much in Spanish, save for a few choice words.
30
Chapter 3
Vinney
When Vinney returned to the garage the grounds workers were still cooking their
lunches on the old gas stove or in the microwave. Many of them had placed their
crinkled foil wrappers in the stove and were shooting pool while they waited. The
various gas powered carts were lined up with their implements sticking out the top of
fabricated racks. Each cart was modified slightly to accommodate its driver. The racks
were made to hold the rakes, shovels, leaf blowers, or anything else they needed as they
trolled around the campus picking up after people, animals, and vegetation. Some of the
workers kept items they found and decorated their carts with their prizes such as beads,
small pieces of carpet or even small radios.
The ones most likely to find the greatest treasures were the small band of movers
whose job it was simply taking things from point A to point B. They were the ones who
used their backs the most, and who were not always known as the most careful. In their
defense, most of the time point B was a staging area in the attic of the shop where the
pieces collected dust until an executive decision could be made to make room for more
furnishings by removing older furnishings or until a mid-level person in the university
decided he or she liked one of the pieces. If a department did not have money to
purchase a new desk or chair for a new hire, they were often sent to the attic to choose
31
furniture. Without air-conditioning the attic choices tended to be hasty in the summer
time.
Vinney’s real name was actually Fernando Rodriguez. He had a brother named
Venancio who came to Texas ten years earlier and married a Mexican woman who had
her green card. Venancio worked in a landscape company while his wife cleaned
people’s houses. She always made sure they paid her in cash because her mother had
instilled a fear in her that if the government knew she was making money they would
take some of it. Venancio got his green card and a Social Security number after several
years of working in Texas during the summers and going back to Mexico in the winters.
That last winter when his brother bought a car and brought it back to Mexico, they
all stared at it as he drove up. It was completely covered in dust except where the wipers
had scraped an opening in the dust on the windshield. The only things he noticed about it
were that it was big, blue and some type of Ford.
“Brother, what have you got?” he asked before welcoming him and his wife.
Their mother came running out to give him a big hug and welcome his new bride. They
ate cabrito, and feasted with family and friends, drinking until late that night. During the
late hours when the party was quieting Vinney and his brother sat in two chairs in the
back corner of the yard.
“Fernando, I forgot about the stars,” he said, looking up. His head rested on the
back of the wooden chair and he sat with his feet sprawled out in front of him.
Vinney had sat in his chair backwards and was resting his arms on the back
holding his beer. He tilted his head back and said, “I wish I could go like you did.”
32
“You know I’m so tired of working I don’t think I want to go back. Working
from sunup to sundown out in the heat all day; all I ever did was sweat.”
“You found time for a wife.” Vinney wanted it to sound funny but it came out as
envy.
“Look, Fernando, there may not be much that you appreciate here but it is our
home and I’m happy to be here.” Venancio looked at his brother and did not want to
argue the point so he offered what he had. “You go back and be me. You can work there
and you don’t have to worry about a thing. Just take my social security number and give
that to my old boss. He’ll take you up and give you a job like he did me. Next spring he
won’t even think you and I are two persons. I don’t care. Go if you want.”
That was most of their discussion and his decision. Fernando took the offer
quickly in fear that his brother would change his mind and came into the US as Vinney.
Ever since he entered he had a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. He never felt he
could truly relax and always feared the eyes of some unseen authority were searching for
him. It felt like a pack of wolves off in the distance. First they just howled their threats
from far off, then they picked up a scent, began to gather, and to follow the trail, one that
would eventually lead to him. He could leap across the river and end the game but he
didn’t want to go back.
When Fernando crossed the Rio Grande, he gained access to a system that
worked for and against him and his brother. He simply went to the same company that
had been hiring his brother every year for the seasonal lawn care. No one cared any more
than that he had a Social Security number and could work. After a few months he had
33
enough courage to get a Texas ID with his picture on it. Some of the other workers with
whom he shared an apartment showed him how. Then when the contract work took them
to SMU, he made some contacts who told him there were a few jobs with benefits at
SMU. At first he thought that would mean that he could stay the whole year but then he
realized that it meant they would not be paying him all the money he earned like his old
company. He had thought the minimum wage and only eight hours a day would make
things easier for him, but he soon realized that the SMU job paid him less when he
cashed his check. One of the other workers at his new job told him that the money he
didn’t get went to taxes and his Social Security for retirement. He would be able to get a
check from the government when he retired based on the money they took from him each
paycheck. When Vinney looked at his first check he asked his supervisor if he would
cash it for him.
Andy couldn’t understand what Vinney was asking and replied in Spanish, “Wait
a minute,” as he called over one of the other workers. After the three of them cobbled
together enough Spanish and English, Andy laughed and said, “No, no, friend you need to
go to a bank. I no cash your check.” Vinney offered to pay him something for his efforts
but Andy only laughed louder and said, “I can just see it now, Tepley’s Check Cashing
Service,” as he illustrated his marquee with his hands creating a large arc in the air.
Sergio, the translator, took Vinney aside and said, “We can go to a check-cashing
place if you want.”
Vinney agreed. He couldn’t trust a place to store money where he couldn’t get to
it when he needed it fast. His mind was still haunted by the thought that there was an
34
immigration agent progressively getting closer and closer to deporting him. His fears
always included the possibility of theft but he found ways and places to hide his cash.
The pawn shop near his apartment had a check-cashing service which charged him
enough to feel like he had been cheated. Eventually, however, his fears were forced aside
when SMU decided to save money by eliminating as many paper checks as possible and
instituted a policy requiring all permanent employees have direct deposit. He swallowed
his fear and went to a bank across the street from SMU, where a woman explained how
his account would work and that his money would be safe. She said that there would be
no charge for keeping the money in the bank or having the direct deposit. The only
requirement was that he needed to maintain a minimum balance of $1,000. Vinney
couldn’t decided if that was a good thing or not and decided probably not but felt
compelled to open the account for fear of being fired.
When he opened the account his first two checks went to the bank before he met
their minimum. He thought about his hidden money and wondered if he should put some
of it in the bank, but he decided it was better to use it and not have them ask any
questions of where he got it. Every two weeks, Vinney then would get his pay stub and
bring his bank card to the bank and withdraw the account back down to $1,000 each time
he was paid or as close as he could get it. It took him two days to get all the money
because he found the ATM easier to use than going in the lobby. At first he would go to
the lobby after work on a Friday and stand in line and then ask for someone who spoke
Spanish to help him. Then he would get the teller to fill out the form and withdraw his
35
money. One day, when there wasn’t a Spanish speaking teller, he stood and waited in the
lobby.
Vinney stood by the desk with the forms and tried to remember how they were
supposed to be filled out. As he held it in his hands he looked at the dirt under his nails
and the grime he had acquired during his daily labors. He felt the eyes of each of the
customers as they walked into the lobby. Their eyes searched him and examined him as
he fumbled with the forms. They were exchanging glances with each other and seemed
to be talking about Vinney and if he was lost or belonged there. The manager finally
came up to Vinney in his bright-red, casual-Friday polo shirt and asked in English and
then in Spanish if he needed help. Once Vinney replied rapidly in Spanish he quickly
realized that was most of the Spanish that the man knew. With some coaxing Vinney
was brought to the ATM and shown how to start using it after the man remembered the
word for card. The only problem Vinney had was the amount the ATM would give him.
Vinney had also become friends with some of the caterers on campus and would
often get some leftover soda or cookies from his friends if he caught them loading in the
used plates and dishes. They told him stories about the different meetings they catered
and who was there in a tone that told him they thought they were very important people.
He would notice the expensive cars parked along the main boulevard, each one costing at
least two or three times one of the grounds workers’ salaries. Most of the caterers knew
English better and would frequently tell him snippets of information which he didn’t
think was important at the time. After he told his friend Rosa about needing a bank
account she said, “Friend, I told you that one of the trustees works for that bank they got
36
set up to receive your checks.” She made it sound like an important rumor which she
alone knew. She gave him a knowing nod and said, “See, now I told you so, so next time
you listen to what Rosa says.” Vinney wanted to ask Rosa what a trustee was but he held
back and just nodded and she took his wrinkled brow to mean that he was admiring her
latest pearl of wisdom.
Rosa was right about something else, but he didn’t care since he didn’t have a car.
She warned him about parking on the streets, that he could get a ticket. When he thanked
her and told her that he didn’t have a car she seemed to take offense to his response.
Afterward when he thought about her look at the time he began to wonder if it wasn’t a
look of disdain. Some of the other workers in the shop felt the pinch in the parking. In
its effort to grow, the University constantly negotiated with the city for building permits.
In order to maintain as much influence as possible the city required more and more oncampus parking and they tightened the restrictions around the neighborhood to
discourage students from parking off campus. This slowed it down but the students could
get to class and back to their cars within two hours if required; the workers could not.
This left the workers with little choice but to purchase a sticker for their car or take the
bus to campus. The twenty dollar a month fee was not much to most of the employees,
but the lower-paid employees missed those twenty dollars. Offsetting the fee was a
benefit in the form of a free bus and light rail pass, which Vinney used as much as
possible.
Some of his amigos in the shop still tried to dodge the parking cop by moving
their cars during breaks and lunch or periodically erasing the chalk mark on the tire. The
37
parking officer for the city was a stocky overweight man who drove around on a threewheel motorcycle. He wore a half-helmet with leather ear flaps and mirrored aviator
glasses, which made him look like a geriatric CHIPS cop. He was equipped with a piece
of chalk attached to the end of a piece of PVC pipe which he used to mark the tires of the
parked cars. If he saw one when he made his loop he assumed it was there for more than
two hours and dutifully wrote the citation. Some of the workers played the cat and
mouse game with him on the sunny days. When it rained, though, his zeal lessened and
they had a day of free parking. Vinney wanted to save his money and buy a car, but he
knew that was just a dream.
Vinney tried to learn English, but the words were difficult and he knew that he
sounded funny so he just hid behind the yes and no he could give and the bits of Spanish
that most people knew. Nobody even expected him to know English. Everything they
gave was in Spanish. He kept waiting and hoping that the President would have some
sort of program to make him legal and forgive all of the others for sneaking across the
border and make them citizens. He just knew his chance would come sooner or later. He
heard it had happened before and was waiting for his chance.
Vinney finished his drink sitting in his cart. Some of the guys were finishing a
game of pool and others ambled to their carts. He watched Tepley come out of his office
and tap on his watch as he passed the pool players. “Vamanos!” he bellowed heading
toward Vinney.
Then “Vinney!” holding one hand high above his head and waving.
“Amigo, I need you to go up to the Law Quad.” Vinney nodded, but before he could
respond Tepley pulled out a map of the campus and pointed to a spot in the upper left
38
corner. “Here,” he said, handing the map to Vinney. “You and Sanchez,” he added,
pointing to Sanchez, who was already heading out the door. “He knows what to do.”
“Sí, sí, yes,” Vinney replied quietly and checked behind his cart to see if the
others had moved theirs out of the way yet. The garage filled with the noise small
engines and exhaust. Vinney ground the small machine into reverse and headed out the
large garage door into the afternoon heat. The garage wasn’t what most people would
call air-conditioned, but they moved around enough air to make it bearable. They had a
small locker room with some old window units that were barely kept alive. In it was an
old big screen television which was constantly tuned to a static-filled, local, Spanish
channel. The television was losing its ability to project the red color so everything had a
green tint to it.
The A/C department was gradually installing a DX unit salvaged from the old
alumni center and other spare parts salvaged from around the campus. They were in the
process of being installed, but all the parts and pieces had not quite been assembled.
They treated it like a hobby which they worked on in their spare time. Tepley told them
that when the A/C department needed something, then the air-conditioning would be
finished.
Vinney squinted and put on his mirrored safety glasses as his cart entered the
bright afternoon sunlight. Vinney’s cart bobbed and weaved through the crowds of
students on their way to and from class. They acted as if he wasn’t there most of the
time, taking for granted that he would stop if they walked in front of him, which he did
on a regular basis. He tried to smile at the students but they didn’t see him. When he
39
arrived at the Law Quad he saw a few tables and chairs scattered around the area. The
wind played with the plates and napkins from lunch making them swirl around in the
grass. Vinney started picking-up the trash before it left the quad. Sanchez came
alongside Vinney saying, “Did we miss the picnic?” Vinney smiled and nodded, picking
up a barbeque-stained plate.
Just then a tall, thin, dark-haired woman appeared at the top of the steps of Storey
Hall and descended rapidly toward them. Their smiles faded as she approached and they
looked up at her as she spoke rapidly to them. “The wind must have come up and blew
some of the plates off the table. The trash cans were full so the plates were just stacked
there.” She was pointing at the concrete trash can embossed with the university’s symbol
of Dallas Hall. They continued to work as she continued to talk. “We need this cleaned
up before it spreads over the quad. The students leave such a mess. We gave them lunch
today.”
She was waiting for a response from them so Sanchez said, “Yes, ma’am.”
“We need those tables picked up, too. Are you going to do that also?”
“Yes ma’am,” Sanchez replied again as he compressed the garbage bag to fit
more in it.
“Where are you going to put the tables and chairs? Do you have a truck?”
Sanchez smiled as he knotted up the top of the garbage bag and replied, “Yes
ma’am.” Sanchez had his orders from Tepley and didn’t know much English, so he
mostly agreed with people to keep conversations short.
40
He caught Vinney’s eye and Vinney straightened up with a full bag of his own.
As he passed them Vinney said, “Sí, sí.” He smiled broadly, put the bag in back of his
cart, and returned with another. He looked around and noticed the woman had retreated
to the archway under the stairs to Underwood Law Library. She was standing in the
shade and had lit a cigarette. Periodically, she would hold it up to her lips and take a long
drag before pulling it out rapidly and holding it down by her side. She would spew the
smoke up and out of the corner of her mouth, half closing one eye as she exhaled.
Vinney and Sanchez looked sideways at the woman as they continued their work.
They had left several full bags around the tables when the woman came back out.
She had finished her cigarette and tossed it off in the grass. “You’re not going to leave
the bags and tables here? Are you? The Dean wants this area cleaned up.”
Sanchez looked at her, not knowing if she wanted to hear yes or no so he replied,
“Sí, sí, Señora.” He knew that she was not likely to be happy with his response either
way.
Out of the south-west corner between the library and Florence Hall the movers
arrived in force. Their leader was a small black man who constantly wore sunglasses.
He kept his shirt tucked in and his shoes shined. His belly had begun to bow out his shirt,
long before the grey crept into his curly hair, but the buttons did their best to keep it
contained. He had suffered through numerous nicknames since he started with the
university: Curly, Little John, Lil Johnny, and finally Johnny. Johnny swaggered in with
his moving crew in tow. They first attacked the chairs and tables, folding them and
carrying them swiftly off to the truck hidden at the loading dock of the library. They
41
hovered about as they came in like a stream of ants picking up things and carrying them
off just out of sight before returning again. They worked in spite of her instructions and
when the last bags were being carried off, Johnny stopped to talk to her for a minute.
As he approached her in the shade of the library he pulled a handkerchief from his
back pocket and wiped his brow. He slowed down the last few feet of his approach to
take a quick survey of the area before addressing her. “Ma’am, sure is hot today. I think
we got it under control now. Do you need anything else?” The archway she stood under
was part of a walkway to the two buildings adjacent to the library. Johnny’s crew were
standing at the south end where it curved slightly so that he could see them looking
anxiously at him. But, he knew they would be just out of her sight.
“Did you get all the tables and chairs? The trash? Empty the trash cans?” As she
fired her questions at him he nodded in agreement, his head tilted slightly to the side.
She couldn’t see his eyes because of the glasses, so she took a long drag on the cigarette
and pointed at Sanchez and Vinney. “When I saw them, I didn’t think the area would get
cleaned up fast enough, er, I mean before the Dean and his guest came through.”
“Yes ma’am, the Dean,” he said, smiling and showing his white teeth, “for the
Dean.” He nodded to her and turned to look at Vinney and Sanchez, who were still
walking around cleaning up small bits of trash. “I think everything is getting back
together. Is there anything else or anything that needs to be moved before we go?” He
pulled off his SMU ball cap and ran his fingers over his graying curls before replacing it.
She finished her cigarette and threw it down on the ground. As she stepped on it,
she answered him, “No. That’s all for now. Thank you.”
42
“Anytime ma’am,” he said, bowing slightly and retreating, “Anytime.” As he
walked off he waved to Sanchez and Vinney. They were making larger circles around
the quad to ensure they had captured all the errant plates and debris.
Sanchez had found a plate with most of a BBQ sandwich still on it sitting on the
steps of the small rotunda in the center of the quad. He took it over to Vinney saying,
“Looks like BBQ. Want some? Just like mom used to make,” he chuckled at his own
joke and dumped it into the garbage bag he was holding. They started talking in Spanish
to each other and then stopped as the woman approached them again.
She smiled thinly and said, “Gracias,” then passed by them, inspecting the area
before heading back up the stairs and disappearing into Storey hall.
Vinney stopped to wipe his brow and survey the area one more time before
heading back to his cart. He knew there wasn’t a dumpster around and would have to
drive all the way back to the shop before being rid of the garbage. In the heat some flies
and a few bees had already begun to buzz around the dark bags on his cart. He waved
them away as he climbed into the cart.
43
Chapter 4
Claudia
As Claudia Hochberg climbed the stairs, she tried to straighten her hair and undo
some of the damage incurred by the afternoon winds. She had stood in the shade in an
effort to avoid perspiring while she watched the workers, but it was impossible under the
oppressively humid air. She had tried to provoke a sense of urgency in the grounds
workers but they only had two speeds, slow and slower. They never seemed to be in a
hurry to get to the next job or to get out of the heat, she thought. Most of her duties
confined her to her desk outside the assistant dean’s office. Her usual attire of pantyhose, skirt and long sleeve blouse protected her from the frigid breezes in the office, but
didn’t help her at all in the warm spring air. Usually, she wore a sweater inside because
the dean liked the air-conditioning set at 68, and while that was fine for someone who
moved about constantly in a three piece-suit, it was perfectly arctic for the stationary
clerical assistants. Before opening the door to the building, she took one last look across
the quad as the two green carts rumbled around the corner of the building.
She opened the door and felt the rush of cool air greet her. The only sound in the
lobby was made by her heels clicking on the green terrazzo tile. She turned to her right
and as she entered the dean’s suite her footfalls faded out on the soft carpet. The hum of
computers and clicking of keys could be heard from her counterpart’s area. Claudia said
softly, “I’m back, Amy.”
44
Amy looked up at first just above the computer screen and then turned to face
Claudia. “I saved all your work for you so you’d have something to do when you got
back.” She clasped her hands together and rested them on the desk behind her nameplate
which read: Amy Sheere, Administrative Assistant. If she was ever asked she would
quickly offer that she worked solely for the dean of the law school and no one else. She
did supervise one person: Claudia.
“Thanks, Amy. Who’s in right now?”
“Just Assistant Dean Mansfield.”
As Claudia sat down she entered the password on her computer to stop the screen
saver from proclaiming “SMU Law” in a scrolling banner across the monitor. A small
icon indicated she had some email. Undoubtedly from the dean, she thought. Opening
up the program confirmed her suspicions. Before she could begin to read the 13 emails,
which had arrived in last 20 minutes, the door burst open from the assistant dean’s office.
“Oh, you’re back,” Mansfield said, redirecting her steps toward Claudia. “Did
you get my emails? I didn’t see that you read them yet.”
Claudia sent the mouse scurrying and pulled up her email. “Yes, I see them now.
I’m just getting back to my desk.” She looked back and forth from Mansfield to the
screen, not yet sure if she should read them now or if Mansfield had another request.
“Well I’ll let you catch up on a few things first.” Mansfield’s words were fading
as she walked back into her office.
“She’s a little wound up today about the Mitchells’ visit,” Amy whispered from
across her desk.
45
Claudia nodded and began to survey the emails. Three pertained to the clean-up
of the quad area. She paused with her fingers hanging over the keyboard, not knowing if
she should respond to each detail individually as they were sent or en masse. As she
opened the last one and the read receipt went flying off into cyberspace to Mansfield’s
computer she decided on one simple “mission accomplished” response. A split second
after sending her response a new directive came and the assistant dean was again heading
toward Claudia’s desk. Claudia hesitated to open the email but finally opened it and
scanned it before looking up at Mansfield.
“I think it would be a good idea to take another look at the quad and make sure
everything got picked up and check on the classroom because we don’t want the
Mitchells’ newly remodeled room to be too hot or too cold.” Mansfield was nodding in
agreement with herself.
Claudia stole another glance at the email and realized it directed her to do the
same thing that Mansfield just told her. “Okay,” she eked out.
“Sorry about the email. I just didn’t want it to slip my mind.” Mansfield gave her
a tight-lipped smile.
“Okay, well I’ll take care of it right away.” Claudia realized that Mansfield
intended to wait until she actually saw her heading out the door again, so she slowly rose
after activating the screen saver and pushing the keyboard drawer back under the desk.
She was careful not to push it too hard and to remember her cigarettes and lighter before
leaving. She fished out a cigarette in the lobby and flicked the lighter as she pushed the
front door open again. The afternoon breeze was warm and sticky. She breathed out a
46
smoke-filled sigh atop the staircase surveying the quad. Slowly she stepped down,
angling across the staircase to start her clockwise search around the area. Claudia took
her time circling the quad so she would be mostly finished with her cigarette before she
needed to go in Florence Hall. She didn’t want to hurry, and with the last drag she
looked at the end of the tar-stained filter. She didn’t allow herself to think about the large
warning label on the pack of cigarettes when she drew one out, but each time she finished
she felt a twinge of regret. As she tossed it into the short urn beside the door she
mumbled aloud, “I gotta quit.”
“Yeah, don’t we all.” A young law student tossed her cigarette butt into the urn
and repeated, “Don’t we all.”
Smiling, Claudia opened the door for her and followed her into the cool air of the
building. Students were gathered on both sides of the hallway chatting amiably while
they waited on the class change. She listened to bits of conversations about classes,
teachers, and social plans on her way to the center of the building to climb the three
flights of stairs. She dodged the students with their bulky backpacks and courier bags as
they flooded down the stairwell. She could feel her heart start to pound half-way up the
stairs. I should have taken the elevator, she thought. This time she deliberately kept her
lips closed to avoid talking aloud. Her pace slowed and she headed to the side as she
reached the second landing. She continued to trudge up the stairs, and when she reached
the top of the third flight, she paused, looking down through the gap in the center of the
stairs at the light brown terrazzo tile on the first floor. Her view of the world closed in on
her slightly as she tried to slow her breathing. With one hand still tightly gripping the
47
handrail she used the other to brush back her hair. Claudia could feel the perspiration on
her brow as she did so.
Her eyes focused on the doors to the classroom. She wanted to find something
behind the cherry-colored doors, something out of the ordinary, something which would
justify her efforts. She wished for a brief moment that a small disaster could be found on
the other side of the doors, something that would surprise her. Instead she found an
empty classroom. The chairs were neatly spaced and situated under the curving desktops
that arced across both halves of the room. She could smell the furniture polish with its
heavy lemon scent. Even the glass case enclosing a picture of a man in his early forties
was securely locked. Claudia looked at the portrait of Mr. Mitchell in his serious suit and
distant gaze. She thought he could have just as easily had the same look with his foot
atop some dead exotic animal out on the Savannah. Claudia could picture the golden
grass waving in the arid breeze as the big cats moved in on their prey. The lionesses
stalking silently from downwind in their patient walk-crawl until they got close enough to
attack. Mr. Mitchell would be one of the great white hunters that would storm in on a
Land Rover, let his guide point out the prey, and fire his shot into a herd. Once the
animal was down, the guide would quickly hop out and dispatch any life left in it before
Mitchell would hold up its head for the important photo. She imagined him giving the
meat to some local tribe in his magnanimous way.
Looking around the room, she realized there was a student sitting in the back
corner with his books out in front of him. He had looked up and was staring back at her
48
with the same look of surprise. She interrupted the silence. “You’ll have to go. This
room is closed this afternoon. I need to lock it up.”
He didn’t reply, and she felt compelled to add more of an explanation, but as she
formed her thoughts he slowly closed his books and stowed them in his backpack. As he
headed for the door she added, helpfully, “You can go to Underwood.” He just nodded
and pushed the door out of his way. She quickly checked the door on the east side which
led to the stairwell on that side of the building. It was locked and she replaced the chair
in the corner on her way back out into the hallway. She tried the lock and then tried
using her keys to lock it. She fumbled with the large square-ended keys, trying each one
before realizing that she didn’t have the new key. Slowly she turned to face the interior
staircase and, plodding down the stairs, she looked at some of the flyers taped to the wall.
She tore the outdated or un-approved signs down, leaving the few law school-affiliated
signs proclaiming debates and the great questions of today’s youth. I’ve got to get away,
she thought as she pushed the door open into the quad once more.
This time crossing the quad to the small rotunda she was met by Mansfield. “Is
everything all-right in there, Claudia?”
“Yes, Dean. I was just coming to get your keys. The room is unlocked and I
don’t have the key,” she replied as she noticed the distinguished group behind Mansfield,
which included the dean of the law school and undoubtedly Mr. Mitchell. He had the
same look on his face as in the portrait.
As they approached, the dean looked up and said, “Hi, Claudia,” and then looking
at Mansfield added, “Is everything ready in the room?”
49
“Yes, I was just checking with Claudia and she just came from there.”
“Thank you, Claudia.” The dean smiled briefly at her before redirecting his
attention to the Mitchells.
“You’re welcome, Dean Wansburough,” Claudia replied to his back.
The Mitchells nodded politely in the direction of Mansfield and Claudia as they
listened to the dean’s continuous dissertation about how the classroom would enhance
learning at Southern Methodist University and how much of an asset the classroom
would be for the law school.
“I’ve got to go. Thank you, Claudia,” Mansfield said. She turned away and
quickly made up the short distance to the group again.
Claudia turned to head back to Storey Hall. The last thing she heard was Mr.
Mitchell’s voice saying, “I’d sure like to see students using the room.”
When she had settled into her chair behind the desk she surveyed the area without
a word to her officemate. Claudia tried to remember the most important thing on her
desk that needed to be taken care of immediately. There is always something, she
thought and then turned back to the emails. When she first came to the law school she
thought it was a step up in the SMU community and that the work for the law school was
held in some high regard throughout the SMU community. She soon found out that it
was just another endless stream of tiny emergencies which would be incredibly important
for five or ten minutes and, once they were done, were forgotten. A sense of pride in her
work kept her there dutifully working late or on holidays and eventually that ebbed out of
50
her. Today, she needed to escape like a caged animal only she wasn’t allowed to pace
back and forth in front of the bars.
Claudia unconsciously moved through the afternoon, and as quitting time
approached she stacked up a neat pile of responses to Mansfield’s inquiries and set them
to her. Claudia was hoping that she would escape without any last-minute requests that
“had to be done right away.” That was one of Mansfield’s favorite lines to keep Claudia
late changing a word or two in a short invitation or request.
“Well, I’ll see you tomorrow,” Amy said from her desk. She was still sitting there
tapping away at the keyboard. “I’m going to wait to see if the dean needs anything
before I leave.”
Claudia checked the clock on the computer and then the one on the wall. The
pendulum swung back and forth and then she heard a soft click as the old clock began to
chime. Without replying to Amy, she started the shutdown sequence on her computer
and glanced at the entrance. She tapped the monitor and responded to Amy, “I’ve got to
go let the dog out.” She knew Dean Wansburough would want to walk the Mitchells
around campus to remind them of their college days, and if it were too hot he would take
them up to the fourth floor of Underwood Law Library where they could sit in the rare
book room. He liked to show off some of the collection of old law journals and
documents. She knew the combination of the leather chairs, cool air and Wansburough’s
stories would keep them there for quite a while. Still, Claudia’s steps carried a nervously
agitated pace to them as she silently waved goodbye to Amy.
51
Opening the door, she inhaled deeply, filling her lungs with the muggy air.
Crossing the parking lot, her hand fished around in her purse for the pack of cigarettes.
She only found her car keys as she reached the edge of the street. Absently, she stepped
out on the street and had made it to the middle before she heard brakes screeching. Her
head snapped to the right, and seeing the truck, all sound stopped. Her eyes registered on
the center of the grill. The only thought that registered was, ‘I left the cigarettes in my
desk.’ Part of her wanted to smile and be satisfied with having solved one problem, but
the onslaught of the truck was also being processed in her mind and her eyes were fully
open to its approach. The truck didn’t seem to be slowing down until suddenly it lurched
backward and forward like a cartoon car with its wheels glued to the ground. Her
attention turned from the grill to the driver. He was looking in the rear-view mirror and
had put his fingers in his ears as the car behind him skidded to a stop. She exhaled
slowly as the car came to a stop without hitting the truck. Soon after, the truck’s driver
rolled down the window, leaned out, and yelled, “You okay?”
“Yeah,” she said, feeling her face warm up until she could feel the heat of her
embarrassment force her to sweat. “I’m fine.” She quickly looked away and continued
across the street to the parking garage, avoiding eye contact with any of the other drivers.
Her mind started to race, tracing over the possible injuries she might have gotten had he
not seen her. Descending the stairs to the lowest level of the garage an acrid taste formed
in her mouth and her hands started to tremble. She fished around in her purse again for
her cigarettes, but she instantly remembered they still weren’t there. Finding the keys she
stood on the landing looking around for it and had to walk halfway up the ramp before
52
she spotted it. After she hopped in, she searched the glove box and the compartment
between the front seats for a spare pack or cigarette. Exasperated she gave up and
decided she would stop at the nearest convenience store. She started the car and the
warm air quickly turned cold. Claudia shuddered uncontrollably and then she saw her
quaking hands.
As she pulled into the 7-11 on Hillcrest she looked around timidly before opening
the car door. Her mind screamed caution for each movement. She stood anxiously
tapping her foot as the clerk put the cigarettes on the counter. She had the wrapper off
and one in her mouth before he gave her the change. Outside the store she cupped a
match around the cigarette and inhaled deeply. Slowly she blew the smoke out again as
she reached the car. Sitting on the hood reminded her of being a teenager. Her mom
used to smoke and Claudia would steal cigarettes from her to smoke with her friends.
Gradually she became accustomed to it and then one day her mom caught her smoking in
the driveway when she came home. Claudia had her back to the street and didn’t see her
mom pull up. Her mom took the cigarette from her and asked her where she got it from.
Claudia just said, “You.” She had braced herself for a long argument or even the “wait
until your father gets home” statement, but her mom surprised her with a different
response. “Buy your own cigarettes.” None of the cancer or horrible addiction stories
came, only, “I guess you’ll make your own choices from now on.”
Once she turned sixteen and started driving she got a job in a grocery store. It
was a typical boring minimum-wage job as a checker, but she did get to buy cigarettes.
The manager made her buy them after they closed for the night. One Saturday morning
53
at breakfast her dad just looked up from the paper and said, “Are you smoking?” She
nodded sheepishly and he replied, “Don’t smoke in my car if you ever want to drive it
again.” She shared her mother’s banishment to the garage or outside while they smoked.
He told her not to throw the butts on the ground. He pretended this was a tough stance
and tried to convince her not to smoke through various tactics from statistics, to
reasoning, to bribery. None of which worked for long. She would quit for a day or two
and then come home and see her mother on the back porch and they would sit there
quietly smoking together. This continued through college. They would take their smoke
breaks together and smile through the occasional cough.
A couple of years ago during the Thanksgiving holiday they were out back
smoking when her mother started coughing and couldn’t stop for five minutes. Claudia
and her dad stood around helplessly and tried to offer her water or to pat her on the back.
At last the spell subsided and after a day of two her mother started smoking again. When
Claudia saw her mother again at Christmas she looked thin and moved gingerly around
the house. Climbing the stairs became a great effort and when Claudia went outside to
smoke her mother gave her a sorrowful look. It was the first time she ever really felt
guilty for smoking. So Claudia started walking where they couldn’t see her smoke.
After New Years her dad called her and simply said, “You know your mom’s got
cancer?” Claudia didn’t know how to respond, so she never did. She made the effort to
go to her parents’ house once or twice during the week and on weekends. She would
drive out to the little suburb east of Dallas to their small three-bedroom ranch home and
sit to watch television with them. Her mother never mentioned any of the treatments she
54
was getting, and Claudia feared she might not be seeing a doctor. When her dad walked
her to the car Claudia looked up at him, and he said, “I think it’s goin' ta be a nice spring.
I don’t know how much your mom’s going to see of it. She doesn’t like the chemo.” His
voice trailed off. She looked up to see the tears forming in his eyes. “She ain’t gunna do
it no more,” he finished. Claudia leaned quietly against the hood of her car as he quietly
turned and went back inside the house.
On her way home that night Claudia made a silent promise to quit, and it wasn’t
until her mom’s funeral a month later that she started again. She helped her father work
through the details of the funeral, receiving guests and sending thank you notes, but after
it was all done she went to the store and bought a carton of cigarettes.
Now looking down at the cigarette in her hand she cursed it under her breath and
took another long drag, holding her breath she watched the tip of the cigarette go from
cherry red to ashen grey and then blew the smoke at it. A small wisp of smoke streamed
skyward, curling, twisting as it rose. She walked back toward the store to drop the butt in
the ashtray on top of the small trashcan. The sand was populated with a forest of butts,
leaving no room for her cigarette, so she simply dropped it on the center and let it die a
slow death.
Now that the cigarette was out of her hand her mind turned back to the small truck
that almost hit her earlier. The image of its grill becoming bigger played over and over in
her mind. She began to wonder what the driver looked like as he jammed his foot on the
brake. He must have known that he would be able to stop because he was already
worried about the car behind him stopping before he got hit. Somehow the vivid imagery
55
of her near-death experience had already faded. Claudia imagined the driver with his
fingers in his ears braced for the loud impact from behind. For a moment she imagined
the truck not stopping and her body flying up over the hood until her head shattered the
window, leaving a distinct indication of blood and physical trauma. She could have
counted this as a close call but wanted to look at it as a dramatized cartoon of her life.
Claudia breathed a long sigh of relief and looked back at the driver’s seat of her car
through the windshield imagining the scene from behind the wheel.
“Can I get you something to drink?”
Claudia almost jumped at the voice so close to her. As she turned to look at the
man who was speaking to her, she asked, “Do I know you?”
“No, not really but you may recognize the grill of my truck.” He smiled and arm
swooped his arm backward in the direction of a small green truck.
“Oh,” she said, while reading his shirt, “you work at SMU. Lex.”
“Why, yes ma’am, I do. And your name is?” he asked, extending his hand to
shake hers.
Reluctantly she lent him her hand, saying, “I’m fine. I was just stopping to get
some cigarettes and now I’m going.” She started to feel warm under her clothes, not the
start of perspiration but an oven-like internal furnace starting to make her cheeks glow.
“I’ve got to get home.”
“To feed the dog, I’m sure. But do ya want something to drink, because I’m
getting something, and well?” His voice trailed off.
“I don’t have a dog. I’m not thirsty. Thank you.”
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“I, I saw you here when I pulled in and, well…” He couldn’t find anything else to
add, so he said, "Lucky no one was hurt or got rear-ended.”
“I know,” she replied, reading his name again. “I’ll see you around, Lex. Thanks
again but I’ve got to go.”
“Okay, well maybe I’ll see you tomorrow.” He started toward the door to the
convenience store; reaching it, he glanced back at her and waved.
Walking back out he held out a bottle of water and smiled at her. When she took
the bottle from him he said quietly, “I never did get your name.”
“Claudia.”
57
Chapter 5
Lex
Lex leaned against the car. “Drink up.” He noticed her hands were shaking
slightly. “It may be the adrenaline is just getting to you,” he said, nodding toward her
hands. “You look a little pale. You may want to eat a little if your stomach is upset.”
“I’ll be fine. Thanks again.” She opened the water and took a small sip before
she added, “You don’t have to wait here with me. I’ll be fine in a minute. My stomach is
just a little jittery from all the excitement, and I’m a little hungry. After I drink some of
this I’ll be fine. Thanks.”
“Do you want to grab something to eat? We can just walk up the block and get
something quick, and you can sit down while your stomach settles.”
“I think I’ll just wait here, drink some of this, and then go on home and crawl into
bed. I’m not really up for dinner.”
“Okay,” he said, sitting down fully on the hood of the car they bounced up and
down as the shocks adjusted to the new load. He looked around at the cars coming and
going into the lot and all of the traffic on the street. He wanted to say something to her
but felt like he was losing ground each time he spoke. He decided that she probably
wasn’t used to the stress of almost being hit by a car and wanted to change the subject.
“Have you been on any good vacations lately?” he blurted it out so fast it seemed like an
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angry question, and after the words had tumbled out of his mouth he wondered what
made him ask something so ridiculous.
Claudia looked at him sideways. “The last trip I was on was to Cancun. It was
just the usual short four-day trip, you know with one of those charter tours that books the
plane and hotel.” She seemed to be looking at the dirt on the knees of his pants, and,
glancing at his hands, which were working the label on the bottle, maybe she noticed the
grime under his fingernails.
“Yeah, I used to do a couple of those a year but it got to be boring. Now I like to
get out away from the city when I go somewhere. Once I did go to Belize because I
heard that it wasn’t crowded, but I guess by time the word got to me it got to everyone
else.” He smiled to himself. “We barely landed before this tropical storm blew through.
I don’t even know why we actually went. It was cheap because it was off-season. But
anyway, just as we got to the hotel they were locking everything down, putting the
shutters up and all. I didn’t think they were going to let us in but they did. I wasn’t too
sure that it was the safest place to be but we didn’t have any other choice. There were the
hotel staff and ten guests all there huddled in the bar. It had the least windows and all the
alcohol.” He glanced over to check to see if she was still listening and he took the
opportunity to take a small drink. “Anyway, the manager tells the guests that the drinks
are half-price. I thought he would make them free, but he says he’s got to make a living.
And he says who’s gunna come in a hurricane? There we were, stranded on vacation.”
Lex shook his head remembering the raging winds that howled and threw things at the
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old stucco hotel. “Couldn’t go anywhere.” He paused, then added, “So how was
Cancun?”
“Boring,” she said. “It’s so boring now.” She looked down at her hands and then
watched him take the last drink from the bottle. Feeling more settled than before, she
said, “Thanks again, I do appreciate you hanging out with me but I’ve got to get going,
Lex.” She moved around to the driver’s door and started to get in as he hopped off the
hood.
“I’ll see you at work then, maybe, sometime.” Walking away he hoped that if he
saw her on campus he’d be able to say “hi.” After dropping the bottle into the trashcan
he fished around in his pocket for the keys.
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Chapter 6
Claudia
Claudia watched as he turned the corner and disappeared from her view. As she
dropped into the seat of the car she deftly slipped the key in the ignition and cranked the
engine. The air-conditioning came on full blast and she waited for it to cool down. Lex’s
truck pulled around the corner and headed down the street. Her mind was ticking through
the details of crossing the street to see if it was truly a close call. She could remember the
color of the truck and the approach, but it seemed like he had stopped two or three feet
away. Trying to test her memory further, she tried to remember what color his hair was.
Was it brown or sandy blonde? No, it was dark, she thought.
Driving home she convinced herself little by little that it wasn’t a big deal and
wasn’t as close of a near-miss as she first thought. There wasn’t an accident, no one got
hit. She kept punching the buttons on the car radio, unsatisfied with the small segments
or commercials she heard, until she finally turned it off at a red light. After she parked
she jumped out of the car and almost jogged to her building. She climbed the two flights
of stairs to her apartment lost in thought with only her keys in her hand. On the landing
she looked back down toward her car, where she had left her briefcase and purse. She
decided they could wait until she had a chance to change clothes and relax a bit.
She pulled her shoes off one at a time as she balanced precariously on one foot
and then the other. Next she slipped off her skirt and shirt, dropping them onto the floor
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traversing the small apartment to her bedroom. She caught a glimpse of herself in the
mirror above the dresser and stopped to look. Standing a few feet back from her image
she looked it up and down. The mirror reflected a shadow of her youth. Claudia tried to
remember her body when she was just out of college. It didn’t take much effort to stay
slim during her twenties, and she never thought of her bra as something for support. It
was just another piece of clothing. Running her hands up and down her hips she began to
dislike her panties. I need something more stylish, even though I’m the only one who
sees them. In the bathroom she looked closer into the mirror to see the tiny lines forming
around her eyes.
She opened up the medicine cabinet and pulled out the mouthwash. As she
swished the minty liquid around her mouth, she scrubbed the makeup from her face.
Then she rinsed, splashed water on her eyes, and looked again into the mirror. Pulling
out a jar of facial mud from the cabinet she began to coat her face and turned it a uniform
mud-brown color. She wiped her hands, put the jar back in its place, and looked at her
mud mask. The edges had begun to dry and she tried not to move her facial muscles to
keep it from cracking. Going back through the apartment, she collected her clothes and
put them in the laundry basket in her bedroom closet. She stood surveying her blouses,
skirts, slacks, and shoes neatly arranged according to season and color. Claudia wanted
to scoop it all up and throw it away or, at least, give it to Goodwill. Frowning, she could
feel the mud cracking. Checking the mirror she noticed it was almost completely dry, but
she wanted to leave it on for a while longer to see if she could resist the urge to move her
face and make it all crack. She shuffled to the kitchen searching for cigarettes; at first she
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remembered that she had taken the last pack with her that morning, but she couldn’t
abandon the thought of any spares, so she checked each cabinet and the refrigerator
twice. In the living room an ashtray lay on the coffee table, only ashes and butts. In the
bedroom she found the same on her nightstand. Taking both to the kitchen she emptied
the ashtrays and rinsed them in the sink, wriggling her nose like a bunny. The mud began
to crack. She quickly moved as much of her face as she could, making odd faces to
stretch her skin and crack the mud.
Returning to the bathroom she washed it off and watched her face reappear.
Suddenly, she felt naked, and she slipped on a tee-shirt and some old sweat pants from a
former boyfriend. Reaching under the shirt she took the bra off and cupped each one of
her breasts imagining them just a slight bit firmer. Her mind jumped back to the thought
of the cigarettes in her car. Grabbing her keys from the counter as she went, she reached
the top of the stairs and stared at the wall of rain between her and the car. She wondered
how long she could go without one. Can I wait an hour? she asked herself. She turned
and re-entered her apartment to busy herself with other things for an hour, moving items
from one place to another in an attempt to tidy up. As she passed in front of the stereo
she turned it on.
She returned to the kitchen when her stomach started to grumble. Almost
automatically she started pulling out the lettuce and other vegetables for a salad. Sitting
down at her table she flipped through the half-read morning paper as she ate. Past the
comics section she reviewed her television choices for the evening. As she washed the
plate and utensils, her thoughts returned to crossing the street and the view of the truck
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screeching to a halt. Now it seemed that it lasted only an instant, and the SMU guy must
have had enough time to see her crossing and probably just skidded the last foot or so to
give her a scare. Why else would he have taken his hands off the wheel if he didn’t feel
like he had control? He’s just an idiot trying to scare me. She bristled at the thought of
his almost hitting her for no reason. He must know there are always people crossing
there and probably saw me as I started across. She began to imagine his view from inside
the truck as she stepped off the curb and trotted across. I’m going to… She couldn’t
think of what she would say to him or even if she would see him again any time soon.
She walked back into the living room and snatched the phone up from its cradle.
Punching one of her pre-set numbers she listened to it ring until she heard, “Hello?”
“Hi Kelly, it's Claudia. Are you playing softball tonight?”
“No, that’s tomorrow night and Thursday, too. Besides, it’s raining cats and dogs
out there now. What’s up with you? How are you doing? I haven’t heard from you in a
month.”
“I’m doing okay,” she said slowly. She wanted to blurt out her story about almost
being hit, but her sense of protocol and pangs of guilt wouldn’t let her launch into the
story. “So how’s the softball going? I think I’ll come out tomorrow night and watch you
if it’s not raining. Are you still at the same park?”
“Yeah, yeah, the same place next to the apartments. I still suck at it and they
always put me in far right field with a guy next to me in center-right field and I’m mostly
just there to chase the foul balls. Last week the prick came over and caught the ball right
above my glove after I already said I had it and was in position right under it to catch it.
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He was like, ‘Well it's a long throw home so I thought you needed help.’ The next inning
after that when I was warming up tossing the ball to him I threw it all the way to the
catcher. That shut him up for an inning. But ya know after that he wanted to ask me
out.”
“How much rain before you get rained out?”
“I don’t know, but if you really want to go I’ll give you a call if it’s rained out. If
you don’t hear from me before the game and you’re not sure if we’re going to play just
give me a call.”
“Okay, that sounds good. If it is a rain-out then maybe we can go to dinner
instead and catch up a little.”
“Sure,” Kelly replied slowly, as if she was in the middle of something else.
“All right. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Buh-bye.”
“Bye,” she hung up she realized she was chewing on her nails and pacing around
the apartment. She set the phone on the counter and turned her attention to the TV, trying
to find something interesting to watch. After going through the guide twice she left it
tuned to a music channel and walked over to the patio door. Opening the sliding glass
door, she could see the rain had slowed and she considered going for a walk in the rain.
When she closed the door she looked at her barely visible reflection in the glass. The
lights from other apartments across the greenbelt interrupted her image, muting the
details of her body, leaving only the outline. She stepped away and moved quickly
through her apartment, putting on clothes and digging some old rubber boots out of the
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closet. She found an old ball cap and her shiny black raincoat that she hadn’t worn in
years. She had bought it on a fashion impulse, or so she told herself.
Out in the rain the drops caught the bill of the cap and plunked down heavily on
the plastic hood of the raincoat. She breathed heavily to see if she could see her breath,
trying to gauge if the air was cold and damp as she felt. Claudia walked behind the
apartments along the small bike-path for a few minutes and then cut across the grass. She
could see the grass clippings hugging the toes of her green rubber boots. This must be
the second time I’ve worn these, she thought, then added aloud, “What am I doing out
here tonight?” She startled herself with a voice louder than she normally spoke. Had the
path been full as it usually was on sunny days with cyclists and runners, someone would
have heard her rambling. The rain began to beat down harder. “Well, there’s no chance
of that,” she said, even louder than before. She could hear thunder in the distance, and
she shivered as the sky lit up with more lightning. She began to count, mouthing the
numbers until the thunder came. She smiled, looking up at the dark sky, letting the drops
of rain soak her face and run down her neck. How long can I stand it out here?
Quietly she walked along looking for the flashes and counting until the thunder
came. As the storm line approached she began to see the lightning bolts reaching from
the sky and dancing along the ground before the clap of thunder. She looked at the trees
and power lines along the road, wondering if they were more attractive to lightning than
she was. Claudia tried to remember a story she read about G. Gordon Liddy and the time
he tied himself to a tree to weather a storm. Was it him? she wondered, or is it a story
similar to Ulysses? “Either way, I’ve got to get inside before my luck runs out,” she said
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aloud, then she looked around in the dark just to be sure no one could hear. Her fear
started to creep up on her, not just the thought of getting struck by lightning but the
insuppressible thought that someone was in the dark watching her, waiting for her, and
stalking her. Claudia’s pace quickened. She focused on her vulnerabilities. She could
hardly suppress herself from running as she neared the lights of the first floor landing for
her building. She imagined an invisible hand about to grab her. The fear welled-up to
the point where she was too scared to slow down or turn around to dispel or confirm her
fear.
As her feet left wet grassy prints on the concrete under the yellow gaze of the
porch lights, she turned around to search the darkness. She was lost in the downpour’s
fury as the sky opened up and a clap of thunder made her jump and yelp. She
straightened and smiled at her own fear, then suddenly a voice from behind made her
twitch and turn, bringing an arm up in her defense. “Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you,” he
said, with his key in the door. She could see he was completely soaked from the rain and
was holding two white plastic bags in his other hand as he opened his door. “I was just
saying it’s a nasty night to be out,” he was almost yelling to be heard over the noise of the
rain.
“It’s okay, I mean, I think it was just the thunder that scared me because it was so
close. Have a good night,” she said as she mounted the stairs. She caught his eye just
before he disappeared behind the door. Climbing the last flight of stairs she found her
key and had it ready. She quickly opened the door, got inside, and instantly locked it
behind her. She went about turning on the lights in the kitchen, living room, bathroom,
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and bedroom. “No one’s here,” she told herself. Damn, I should have got those
cigarettes while I was down there.
Shaking off her wet clothes she stood in the kitchen for a minute trying to think if
she had stashed any cigarettes there. The edgy urge for nicotine led her to another search
and after ten minutes of opening and closing cabinet doors, looking in the refrigerator and
freezer, she gave up and opened a beer instead. Walking to the bathroom she looked at
the tub. I’ve already done so much my mother warned against, she thought as she started
to draw a bath. The storm continued its intermittent tympani while she slipped into the
tub. She put in too much hot water and it seemed to scald her as she lowered herself, but
she wanted it to contrast the cold rain she had been standing in earlier. She looked at the
beer bottle sitting on the floor by the tub and asked it, “Where’s my wine?”
Settling into the water she used a washcloth as a pillow and leaned her head
against the back of the tub and closed her eyes. Her mind rambled among random
thoughts, and she wondered if the new habit of talking aloud to herself was a result of her
afternoon trauma. The image of the grill of the truck rushing at her came to the forefront
of her mind, and her mind played the image over and over she slowly slid under the
water. She could feel her hair floating around and barely tickling her face. Soon the air
welled up in her lungs and she exhaled slowly, trying to remain under the water. She
could remember the summer-time game in the community pool with her friends when
they would all hold their breath under water. They used to sit on the bottom of the pool
looking at each other, seeing who could hold their breath the longest. Claudia used to be
able to hold her breath for a minute. Her dad taught her to practice it, and they would
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practice as they drove. He said that if she were in a car that went off a bridge into the
water or something you would need to hold your breath for at least a minute in order to
get out of the car and swim to the surface.
Her face burst out of the water and she could feel her heart pounding, her chest
heaved, and brought fresh air into her lungs. She looked around, half-expecting someone
to be watching her because of the embarrassment she felt. After regaining her composure
she slowly lowered herself into the tub again and began to count. Passing twenty she
could feel the pressure build and slowly let some air out. By the time she reached thirty
she felt as if she would burst and out on thirty-two. Half-heartedly she decided it was
time to wash up a bit and quit playing her games.
With the towel wrapped around her she listened to the water run down the drain
as she slowly combed her hair. The water made it dark and straight and she didn’t feel
like drying it, so she took another towel and wrapped her hair up in it like a turban. She
slid into her satin pajamas and looked at the clock. Eight thirty-nine seemed too early to
go to bed, so she walked back out to the living room and noticed the pile of rain-soaked
clothes she had left in the kitchen and by the front door. What would mom say? she
thought as she hauled them back to the hamper in her bedroom closet. She placed the
boots by the front door and turned her attention to the television. As she sat down she
remembered the beer sitting on the floor in the bathroom. She wanted to leave it there
but knew that would just mean she would forget about it and kick it over later. She
retrieved it and set it on the coffee table in front of her. The beer was too warm to worry
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about it sweating on the table, but she instinctively put a coaster under it, anyway. The
remote brought the TV to life and the world to her living room.
Claudia seldom put the TV on for more than the news. Whenever she turned it on
at night she would always fall asleep to it. First she searched the onscreen guide then
slowly stepped through the channels, hoping to find something interesting enough to
linger on long enough to forget and fall asleep. I waste too much time with this, she
thought. It’s always the same stuff and if there is a good show they only produce about
ten shows a year and rerun it five times. Just like work, she mused. What have I got
against repetition; it’s my life nowadays. The most excitement I’ve had lately is almost
getting run over. She laughed to herself. She began to imagine actually getting hit. Her
mind ran over the possibilities from a slight tap by the truck to getting hit into the
oncoming traffic. That was a particularly deadly scenario where she died, and she tried
to imagine the reactions of her family and friends. She also wondered if there would be
more than a blip on the SMU radar. Claudia kept seeing her head hitting the truck and
rebounding as she spun 180 degrees and landed in oncoming traffic too late for them
stop.
She began to feel guilty about her thoughts and stood, staring down at the remote
and her unfinished beer. She carried the beer off to the sink and watched the suds flow
down the drain then, aggravated with their slow progress, she turned the water on to
chase the beer down the drain before tossing the bottle into the trashcan. The TV still
chattered in the background, and as she walked to the bathroom to brush her teeth she
turned it off. She watched herself in the mirror performing her nightly ritual of brushing
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and washing. Leaning in closer she searched her face for the fleeting signs of youth.
Something had changed in her face. She couldn’t see any distinctive lines, yet she felt as
if something was missing. Slowly she turned away, switching the lights off and finding
her way to the bed in the dark. Quietly she shuffled slowly, trying not to bump her shins
on the obstacles she knew were there.
Lying in bed she could hear the faint sounds of her neighbor’s television. Her
mind started to go over the things she would do at work in the morning for the assistant
dean. There would be the usual laundry list of items for her to take care of and the
numerous calls so that Claudia clearly understood the directions. She imagined the words
the assistant dean would use. “I just wanted to clarify. I have an objective for you. Can
you accomplish this task?” Claudia swirled these thoughts around in her head as she
drifted off to sleep.
Suddenly, she jerked her head off the pillow, opened her eyes, and stared
mindlessly at the clock. Her hand came out from under the covers and slapped at the
alarm clock until it stopped. She sat up in bed and read the red LED numbers, realizing
that it was time for her to get up. Moving toward the bathroom it seemed as if she hadn’t
slept at all. The thoughts of her workload rushed back into her head and she organized
her work tasks during her morning routine. Reaching the kitchen she instantly
remembered that she hadn’t set the coffee pot so that it would automatically brew her
coffee. After she measured the grounds into the filter she looked around in the cabinets
for something to eat. She ticked off the things that she didn’t have: cereal, oatmeal, fruit,
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and milk. Investigating the loaf of bread, she found it somewhat stale but suitable for
toasting.
She stared blankly at the television as she waited for the toaster and coffee pot.
Claudia usually turned it on as she passed through the living room, but this morning she
left it off and now out of habit she continued to stare at it until the sound of the toaster
popping the toast up brought her back to the kitchen. She put it on a plate and slowly
worked some butter into the brown crust. She poured out a cup of the dark coffee and
moved to the small table she had positioned between the kitchen and living room. Her
chair faced the television and she wanted to get up and turn it on but held back as a small
challenge to herself. Slowly crunching the toast and sipping the coffee she listened to her
body’s nervous nicotine fit itching away at her. She felt edgy and irritated at herself and
kept thinking just one cigarette would help to calm her nerves. Each time the thought
crept into her mind, she beat it back until the last bite of toast when she became aware of
the silence once again.
On the short trip to work she caught every red light and as she waited for them to
change she tapped her fingers on the steering wheel. After five minutes of waiting she
began to take inventory of the car and she thought about the pack of cigarettes alongside
the driver’s seat. She had briefly thought of them as she walked to the car but suppressed
the thought. As each minor annoyance worked on her, she kept imagining reaching down
and pulling just one out and placing it between her lips. Just one, she thought, I’ll just
have one. Something held her back and she just kept on imagining drawing the smoke in
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and watching the curl of smoke off the cherry red end of the cigarette. Claudia knew her
smoking had to end sometime, and it was better than losing a lung to get the lesson.
She decided to park across the campus from her office and walk in the cool
morning air. Once she followed the trail of cars into the parking garage she began the
slow assent to the top. She was lucky enough to find one near the top just before the
open section so her car would be in the shade.
Claudia climbed the half flight of stairs to the top deck. Looking around she
could see some students but mostly it was the staff moving toward their workplaces.
They were scuttling across the pathways and streaming into the buildings. Some of the
people who had to park on the top deck gave her a sideways glance before they headed
off the deck and down the stairs. Peering over the edge, her gaze naturally fell to the
ground. It didn’t look very far to her, but her mind knew the danger. She wanted to
balance on the edge of the wall, to find her center-point and just balance on her stomach
with her feet over the safety of the parking deck while she looked out and down from five
stories high. Her mind toyed with the danger of the fall as she pressed up against the
parapet and stared straight down the face of the building. Looking at the wide ledge she
could imagine walking along it like a cat undisturbed by either the height or the simple
act of walking. She started to feel the stone pressing against her chest and her feet
lightened ever so slightly. Not to the point where they were no longer touching the
ground but only to the point where they gave the smallest hint that they could be
convinced to leave the surface even if for a brief moment.
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Claudia gave up her brief moment from on high and followed the small throngs
down the stairs and across the manicured grass crisscrossing between the buildings on the
blanched sidewalks. Almost automatically her feet propelled her forward past the
engineering buildings, the student center, and into the main quadrangle, until she reached
the fountain. She stopped in front of the low round fountain and looked off to the left of
Dallas Hall where the Law Quad lay hidden behind the live oak trees. Dallas Hall was a
long stone’s throw away from the fountain and she imagined trying to hit it with a rock.
She looked back to the south at the flagpole where the flag stood limply at half-mast.
The fountain gurgled next to her feet and she wanted to take off her shoes and walk
through the outer ring which sprayed water toward the center nozzle so she could stick
her hand in the stream and feel its force. She watched the outer ring constantly throwing
water at the center, never quite making it to the center but constantly arching and
reaching for it. The thought of the cold water made her shiver and she remembered she
still had to get to work.
Claudia started to go over the possible tasks that might await her and the usual
death notice email which would announce “for whom the bell tolled,” most recently.
Almost every day some retired employee or professor emeritus died and there would be
an email to everyone. When Claudia first started working at SMU they were merely
names and could have been randomly picked from the phone book. Then there was a
point after five or six years when she started to know some of the people. Every so often
it would be some older acquaintance who she knew from a meeting or through another
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coworker. She imagined her name on notification. It would probably be sent to her
inbox as well.
As she climbed the stairs to Storey Hall she began to regret having parked so far
away. She braced herself for the look she would receive from Mrs. Sheere.
75
Chapter 7
Joe
“There I was. Thought I was gunna die.”
“Here I am. Think I’m gunna puke.” Joe’s round face smiled at him. Stubble
from his usual five-o-clock shadow darkened his already tan face. The lines radiated
from his eyes as the smile turned to mock laughter then a slight chuckle emerged as the
bulk of his frame moved at first in humor then he morphed it into a rhythm to match the
drumbeat. Joe had interrupted and as Lex’s eyes leveled on him, Joe began to sing with
the music, “Take it eee…zzzy.” He stretched out the last word until it sounded like the
wail of wolf and the next line had been sung. Joe picked up his bottle of beer and tapped
the side of Lex’s bottle, sliding it across the bar so Lex had to grab it before it fell.
“Where was I before I was so rudely interrupted?” Lex returned his gaze and
attention to the barmaid.
A man down at the end of the bar raised his nearly empty beer so she could see it.
“Just a sec, Hon,” she said as she nodded toward the other patron. She grabbed another
Bud from the cooler under the bar and gave it a nudge with her hip to close it as she
popped the top and slid the beer to the man. He pulled three soggy one-dollar bills and
handed them to her after she had scooped the empty bottle up. The clank of the bottle
fixed all eyes on her as she pirouetted and hit the cash register. Dumping the bills in she
scooped a couple of quarters and half turned toward her patron again. He nodded and she
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dropped the change in the carafe near the register. She turned again, drummed the bar
with her hands, saying, “Thanks, Bud.” They nodded and smiled at each other.
At the other end Joe punched Lex in the shoulder and said, “I gotta get.” Joe
drained his beer and set the empty heavily back on the bar. The barmaid looked up and
he shook his head. “Thanks for talkin’ me into the beers, I don’t git to very often ‘cause
a the kids’ practices and all. See ya tomorrow.”
“Yeah, I’m done too,” Lex added and set the nearly empty bottle on the bar.
While his hand was still wet with the sweat from the bottle he rubbed his face, forehead,
and finally stroked his hair back slightly. A couple of beers did nothing to lighten his
mood. He looked forward to an evening of flipping through the TV channels and
drinking more beer. It started raining just in time to ruin any evening plans. He slogged
in and out of it going from place to place, and now he had to leave another place. The
french fries he ate on the way over to the bar had left a brackish taste in his mouth which
he was unable to wash away. Staring out the open door into the rain he watched Joe
disappear between the raindrops.
His thoughts turned the rain to snow and he imagined it getting ever deeper.
Walking in the snow would quiet things down, slow things down. The crisp air would be
brisk on any naked flesh, and one could be alone in the silence of the cold, braced against
it under layers of clothes. He could smell the clean mountain air and feel the snow
compact under each footstep. Without snowshoes it would be impossible to walk in deep
powder. He had already discovered the meaning of postholing. The giant steps in and
out of deep snow would relentlessly wear a person down until he couldn’t go any farther.
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He had been there, at that point of total fatigue where the attractive bed of snow called to
him. Snow had a way of seeming innocent. “It’s just water moving real slow,” he mused
in his mind.
Lex could remember being in the snow, just lying there, feeling its warmth, and
closing his eyes. He could only rest for a second, and then he remembered that a second
would be too long. A second would really be minutes and might mean losing a finger or
toe to frostbite. He couldn’t imagine the pain or horror of losing a digit because the soft
snow embraced him. He could hear the sound of the snowflakes hitting the nylon hood
of his coat. Its Gore-Tex layer kept him dry and the fleece underneath kept him warm, or
so he thought as he watched the snow cover the coat. Beyond the point of shivering, his
body relaxed into the snow. A hidden survival feature had begun the process to protect
the vital organs. His thoughts remained lucid as he evaluated the situation. It was a
simple plan: stay put. He traced back to the start of his predicament.
With the additional snowfall, they had opened up the back bowl deeming that
there had been enough snow to make it skiable. Lex had been counting on the cold front
to move through the mountains and dump fresh powder on the slopes, and he could
hardly contain himself as the truck skidded up the mountain early in the morning. He had
honed his skills in an advance ski class during the morning hours as the snow continued
to fall. Afterwards, he and three others skied the back bowl area. Knowing that the area
would close early, he bombed down the last run, leaving the others behind, so he could
catch the lift up to the top to make it to the back bowl for the last run of the day. He
watched the lift operator close the line behind him as he sat down on the chair and put the
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bar down. Resting his feet on the foot-bar he tucked his poles under one leg and curled
his fingers up inside his gloves for the fifteen-minute ride into the snowy darkness of the
mountaintop.
Getting off the lift he nodded at the ski patrol, thinking that they would be skiing
down after him to clear the mountain. He was sure they counted him as he went by.
They had to have seen him in his bright red parka. Maybe they thought he was one of
their own going to sweep the mountain. That would be a problem, he thought. What if
they did think he was one of the patrol and when they all got down at the bottom they
would count each other up and not think to worry anymore? It was never just one thing
which got him in trouble—it was always a string of consistent mistakes which seemed to
add up to one big issue. He continued to question his own judgment as he skied down the
run. Was it poor judgment to take the last run of the day? Or was it poor judgment to
take a new route after a day of skiing? Lex had seen one of the others in his group take a
small jump off a boulder, and he wanted to practice it so he could make it his new trick.
As in all great adventures the start went according to plan but the ending did not. He had
gotten a better jump, giving him just a few seconds of air time but not enough ground
time to avoid the saplings in his new landing zone. One ski had dutifully released his
foot while the other yielded in another fashion. He hunted for the ski with the broken one
by swinging it through the powder like a scythe until he got tired and noticed the everdarkening sky. Lying in the snow, reflecting on the decision to abandon the other ski as
lost, he began to view that as a mistake. He should have found it to give him an
opportunity to ski out.
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The broken ski and his poor balance did not allow him to ski out on one ski, so
after falling half a dozen times he threw that off and just began to walk, sinking to his
waist sometimes with each step. As he post-holed down the slope, the shadow of the
mountain settled in upon him and he looked up at the stars appearing in the sky and then
down the slope.
The twinkling lights of the shops at the base were like a far-off planet holding
some hope of life and survival. Eventually he came to think of it as a hopeful sign,
thinking that perhaps an unaccounted-for car might attract attention. His mind kept busy
reasoning how they might first determine that: a. there was a skier left on the mountain,
and b. where to look for him amongst 2000 skiable acres. The last thought reminded him
that he would be easier to find standing up and more likely to keep all of his digits if he
continued to move. He tried to backtrack through the timeline to keep his mind occupied
and he went back to the previous day when he had been soaking in the local hot springs.
He had been jumping from spring to spring, trying to find one just the right
temperature, happily meeting and greeting all of the others along the way. He carried
along the same conversation with most of them: how are you? Where are you from?
Enjoying your vacation? All the usual boring stuff strangers say to one another without
any real interest. Lex liked to remember people’s names and surprise them with it later if
he met them again. He would watch their faces as they tried to comprehend who he was
and why he knew them. Some party trick now, he thought as he tried to recall all the
peoples' faces and names. The cold began to nip at him and slow him down as thoughts
of wild animals crept into his mind. Nah, no bears, he thought. That would be bad. So
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would a pack of wolves. Death scenarios began to audition in his mind as he continued
downward. The forced heel-toe motion of his ski boots made him jerk forward with each
step. This is the kind of motion that would signal sharks if I was in the water. He smiled
as this thought warmed his blood. With his eyes half closed he pictured the gray fin
knifing through the blue water then the sudden spasm and burst of red against the sea of
blue. Lex could see the sun bobbling on the ocean, and it was bright enough to make him
squint. Then his ears could hear the sound of a motorboat. A quiver shook his body, and
he realized it was a snowmobile chugging along the trail winding its way up the mountain
followed by four others. The cold released its grip on him as he ran toward them, waving
and yelling. He only just made it to the last sled because she was a little hesitant picking
her way between the trees in the dark. She nearly hit him when he jumped out like some
madman in her path. “My hero!” he yelled, waving his hands.
*
*
*
Lex shook in the doorway as if he had an epileptic seizure as the barmaid said,
“See you next time.” Lex smiled, gave her a nod, and plunged into the rain. It quickly
soaked him. Watching the torrent on the windshield he imagined the truck as his own
submarine resting on the bottom of a murky world. The truck quietly started and he
flipped through the radio stations trying to find a good song. He thought about waiting
until the rain subsided. He stared at the windshield which was flooded with water while
fog formed on the inside, then he flipped on the defroster and dug into the various CD’s
stashed in the truck. Searching and rejecting various artists, he finally settled on
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something by The Grateful Dead and thrust it into the player before turning his attention
back to the monsoon.
“God, I need to get outta here,” he mumbled to himself. It was barely a whisper
among the sound of the rain and music. Lex felt as if life and its opportunities had never
really opened up for him. He was always able to get by and support himself, but never
got that one lucky break. He was able to live comfortably enough so that after a few
years of work he could begin to go on more elaborate vacations, but that was all they ever
were. Lex never thought of himself as one of those guys who could win the lottery, but
more like one paycheck away from the bank taking his truck away and getting kicked out
of his apartment. Gone were the misspent days of his youth when he thought that he
could be a millionaire by the time he was thirty. That illusion had come and gone.
Life was mired in the ordinary: get up, go to work, go to the gym, eat and go to
sleep, repeat. Each day was just one day closer to payday and another in a long series of
stepping-stones that led nowhere. At least if I was going in circles things would start to
look familiar, he mused to himself. There was always some new problem that constantly
bogged him down. He had to admit that at least life was inventive because he never
seemed to encounter the same problem twice, except at work.
Work held a simple pleasure not unlike swimming against a current. All around
you things are rushing by but you are working like mad to maintain the same position.
Eventually, fatigue catches everyone and the tireless tidal forces prevail. Lex was still a
strong swimmer and he didn’t mind the constant onslaught of minor electrical repairs he
was called upon to do every day. Most were fairly rudimentary and they rarely taxed his
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mind, so it was free to pursue other items—daydreaming about his next adventure or
conquest. All he had to do was to find what was broke and replace or repair it. Most
things now did not allow for much repair, so if they were broke others would be bought
to replace them.
He had never seen the disposable world so close until he had started working for
the university. Coming from construction, all of his efforts had been in putting things
together and walking away from the finished product or nearly finished and go on to the
next. If you didn’t like the boss you could just find another job. Then someone told him
he should have a job with benefits. “What are you going to do when you retire?” his
sainted mother would ask him. He could read into her real meaning: When are you going
to settle down, get a steady job, a steady girlfriend, get married and have children? Then
when he got the job with the University he thought that she would at least give him credit
for that, but she just continued hammering away for the rest or her newest suggestion:
“Why don’t you go to school and get a degree?”
It sounded so romantically appealing on the surface. He could somehow convince
his boss to let him go to class during the day for an hour or two and then work extra at
night to make the time up and eventually he would get a degree. If his mother were right,
he would also get married because so many of “those” college girls wanted to get their
“M-R-S.” He protested that going to school and getting his degree would make him
over-qualified for the good job and benefits she had wanted him to get in the first place.
“I’m thirsty,” he said to himself as he refocused on the blurry windshield.
Turning the wipers on he looked for any indication the downpour would abate, but he had
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already resigned himself to the fact that he needed to get going. He fought back the urge
to gun the engine and let the tires spin on the slick road to avoid attracting the attention of
Dallas’s finest. He didn’t need to get a DWI and be walking to work. His eyes scanned
the street waiting for his opportunity to pull out into the rush hour traffic, his mind ran
through the odds of a cop pulling him over in the rain. He reasoned that the police, like
most other humans, would do what they could to stay warm and dry. Unless he did
something to attract attention he could fly under the radar. The thought of another night
flipping through the cable channels led him to run through the list of current movies,
trying to find something that sounded good enough to waste his money on. If he went to
the Inwood then he could get another drink and watch a movie. Of course there was
always the movie rental, the six-pack, and Rosie Palm.
Then he saw the little bar with the “Tavern” sign lit. Impulsively, he pulled in the
lot, jumped out, slammed the door to the truck, and hit the lock button on the key fob as
he pocketed it. His truck gave a friendly honk goodbye. The smoke greeted him as he
peered into the long thin room. His eyes scanned the room as the bartender came up.
Lex asked, “Got any specials?”
“Why, ain’t ya feeling special tonight just to make it out of the tempest?” the
bartender asked, smiling broadly. Lex wasn’t sure if he could stand the humor and
waited straight-faced until the bartender spun around and grabbed an almost empty bottle
of Crown. “On the rocks?” he asked Lex as he scooped some ice into a small glass and
emptied the bottle into the glass. As he poured out the contents, he raised the bottle
higher and higher until it was emptied. “There ya go,” he said, sliding it slowly toward
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Lex. “On the house. That there’s to tide you over while you decide. And if you ain’t
drinking it then I will, but I’m gunna have to charge ya then.” He punctuated this remark
with a thin smile, which might have made him uncomfortable if he had been completely
sober.
Lex mumbled a quiet, “Thanks,” and nodded back at the bartender. He noticed
for the first time that there was another patron at the end of the bar who was apparently
the source of the smoke. As the man took the last draw on his cigarette he pulled another
from the pack on the bar and lit it with the remnants of the last. The smoke hung around
his head, languishing before it thinned and blended in the room. The man’s gaze
remained fixed straight ahead just beyond the tip of his fresh cigarette. His left hand
gripped the mug handle as if to keep it from sliding away. The only true movement in
the bar came from the bartender who busied himself wiping down the bottles of liquor
and checking the amounts in each. Lex looked at his glass and tilted it from side to side
swirling the liquid around before taking it to his lips for a small sip. He tried to take an
interest in the evening news playing silently on the TV. He began to think that had he
actually paid for the drink he would just leave after drinking it but now guilt would hold
him back. There wasn’t anyone waiting for him at home, anyway.
He caught the bartender’s eye again and asked, “Got anything to eat here?”
“No, but you can call for delivery if you’re hungry. There’s always pizza and
Italian food from the restaurant across the street.” He pulled a menu from the side of the
cash register and flipped it up on the bar toward Lex.
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Lex tried to focus on the page but some of the smaller letters were difficult to see.
Thoughts of his bespectacled father crept into his mind. He could picture him peering at
the remote control, turning it up and down to catch the light and to read the words
through the bifocals. Lex wondered how his father never memorized the keys on the
remote. How difficult would it be to remember where the keys were? Christ, it wasn’t
like he didn’t already have half the TV schedule memorized and critiqued. Every time
Lex called it was the same conversations about what was on TV earlier in the week and
what the weather was. There was a time when Lex didn’t even bother to pretend to have
an interest in the few items his dad would talk about. Now, though, things had changed
slightly. Lex began to hear the age in his father’s voice. The last time Lex bothered to
visit he noticed the look in his old man’s eyes. It was a gaunt look acquired through
years of life and living that had brought him down low.
Lex looked down at his hand and let the melting ice in the brown liquid circle the
glass before taking it to his lips and straining it though his front teeth. He gulped down
more than he had intended and clamped his jaw shut to keep it heading in the right
direction. Maybe food would be a good idea after all. The earlier beer had filled his
stomach so he didn’t feel hungry, but food would absorb the alcohol and give him an
excuse to stay longer.
“Another one of those?” the bartender asked with a wide grin just after the Crown
had warmed his stomach.
“I um, well,” he stammered, “discretion being the better part of valor, I had better
not,” Lex replied with wavering smile.
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“Ok, Falstaff, what‘ll it be? Ya need a minute to decide? I’m kinda busy, but I
can make the rounds and get back to ya later.” His eyes stared past Lex into the rainy
night and his lips formed a thin red line on his face.
Lex’s head turned quickly as he heard the door open. At first he only saw two
dark shiny mounds enter the bar. While they shook off the water and shed their coats, he
heard the barkeep setting up two mugs of beer on the counter. He looked down to see
that the mugs had materialized in front of him. Then looking at the two men again he
was almost startled to see them standing beside him. One of them was pointing at the
beer closest to Lex. Lex jumped up. “Lemmie guess, these are your seats.” He moved
back from the chair as he watched the two men slide into their regular seats.
Both men made a production of hoisting themselves up in the chairs and setting
heavily down in them. It was a surprise to Lex that the chairs could withstand so much
abuse on a regular basis. The bartender was drumming his hands on the bar in front of
Lex’s new position. “This isn’t someone else’s favorite chair, is it?” he asked. “I can
move again if need be.”
“You didn’t need to move the first time if you didn’t want to,” he said, returning
the same look.
“I thought that was their regular spot?”
“Could be your regular spot now. Don’t worry, they probably wouldn’t have hurt
you. It’s not ‘til after a few brews that they start harassing other people.”
“No big deal. I don’t mind.”
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“Suit yourself. Drink?” he asked pointing at the now empty glass. “More of
that?”
“Shiner,” he said, shaking his head. “That stuff will rot you guts.” Lex began to
think about getting home. He’d set off after work to get a mid-week buzz and had
already gotten that, and now he began to think of the costs. He hadn’t eaten and there
certainly wasn’t anything or anyone to keep his attention here. The regular in Lex’s old
chair had pulled out a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket and was tapping them on
the counter. At first glance Lex thought he saw a semi-nude woman in the style of one of
the old Vargas girls on the cover of the pack, sitting with one knee bent for modesty and
her face in a large inviting smile. Then after catching a pack of matches from the
barkeep, the man’s large hand enclosed around the pack again as he shook a cigarette
from it. He noticed Lex’s gaze, and offered the pack to Lex. Lex waved him off saying,
“No thanks. I’m not a smoker.”
“I just thought we could smoke a peace pipe,” he replied and his buddy laughed
with him at the joke. “It’s okay, anyway, because everyone is a smoker in here,
anyway,” he added, gesturing to the room with his cigarette before he put it in his mouth
and struck a match.
Lex watched the glow on the end of the cigarette and returned his gaze to the pack
realizing that it was really an eagle on the package. He rubbed his eyes and looked for
his watch. After realizing he wasn’t wearing it he grabbed the cell phone hanging from
his belt and compared the time on it to the clock hanging up over the shuffleboard table.
He re-evaluated the amount of beer left in his bottle and began to regret having come in
88
the tavern. It was a cave-like pit without any other purpose than to sit and get drunk.
Lex reached into his pocket and pulled out a couple of wadded bills. He unfolded a few
before finding a five and placing it on the bar. Given the lack of customers, it seemed to
Lex that the bartender took an extraordinarily long time to come collect the bill and bring
back the change. With the free drink he didn’t want, he felt guilty about drinking the
two-dollar beer so he just straightened the three ones he had gotten back and left them
stacked between his bottle and the edge of the bar. Taking a long pull on the bottle, he
looked around again before swallowing it. He was isolated in the tiny bar. There did not
seem to be any rescue coming soon. Lex hurried the pace of his drinking and stood as he
finished the beer. Setting it down lightly on the bar, he steadied himself with the edge of
the bar to check his balance.
A slender hand picked up the bottle, and he heard the loud clank of glass hitting
glass in a trashcan under the bar. Raising his eyes from the two hands straddling his
change on the counter he saw a short-haired, red-headed fairy, bearing a close
resemblance to Tinkerbelle. He checked to see if she had pointy ears, but all he could
easily detect were small gold cuffs on the top of each. She spoke in a voice that was
prematurely aged from smoke, giving her a gruff sound as she growled, “S’up? Ya dun?”
Her words came at him slick and fast without any accent that he could detect. Lex
nodded mutely and her hands quickly scooped up the bills and stuffed them in an empty
carafe by the cash register. With the decision to leave having already been made and
announced, he felt obligated to go, but his curiosity was eating at him to stay and learn
more about this new sprite, perhaps even to just learn her name.
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His feet saved him from prolonged embarrassment. He felt himself moving
toward the door. He realized as he glanced back into the bar that he needn’t have worried
about what the others thought because they were all likewise engaged in studying the new
bartender. He adjusted his coat, looked at his cell phone one more time before plunging
back into the wet darkness beyond the smoky comfort of the tavern. The damp air had
gotten colder and it was just the slap in the face he needed to wake-up.
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