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aRt By eRiC ReyNOLdS

"Lemme tell ya, nothing clears out the pores like a weekend in Reno with the baby-sitter."

Another bit of sagely advice from John. John was our janitor, and in all his 35-odd years of working, it was probably the best job he had ever had. He worked for 15 years pumping gas until everyone went self-serve. My favorite story was how during the bitter Toledo winters he would hose down the entire parking lot, wait for it to freeze up and then put up a huge sign at both entrances saying "Beware: Ice." The rest of the night would be spent in the locked garage with not a single customer to lure him out of the warm indoors or interrupt his eight hour-long canasta smokers.

"You ain't got nothing wrong with you that a little rest, relaxation and female company won't cure," he said, disgusted. "You're just a punk kid who never had to work for nothin', so of course you don't know which way is up. Don't tell me different. I read about your generation in the newspapers and believe me, it's a cryin' shame."

The lunch room was nearly empty. John glared at me in his filthy blue company coveralls, leaning his chair back just far enough to touch the wall. John was the only employee who was actually provided a free set of work clothes, and to show his appreciation he washed them at least twice yearly.

"You got a good job. You got a girlfriend. You got no cancer, no heart problems, no gout, no arthritis, nothin'. I got a blood clot in my leg that any day could make a beeline for my heart, wham-the bum rush is on and I keel over dead. You hear me pissin' and moanin'?"

"No," I agreed, though technically that's exactly what he was doing now.

"So what's the matter with your girlfriend?"

"I don't know. We don't talk so much anymore, we don't have sex so much anymore,...the passion, it's missing passion."

"You expect too much. Any two people who say they still moon and spoon like they did when they were courting after five or ten years together are either liars or they're fuckin' nuts and probably don't even know what day it is."

"Why can't it be exciting, though?" I ask, actually making eye contact. "I'm almost 30. Why can't I get up in the morning and get excited about coming into work? Why can't I have an exciting, fun and totally sexy relationship? Why shouldn't I?"

"I don't know. Why shouldn't everybody win the Lotto? Why can't people stop stabbing and shooting each other? You tell me, you went to college."

The time clock clicks loudly in the pregnant pause. John pushes his seat forward, then leans back once more.

"Okay, returning now to Planet Earth. I'm gonna give you better advice than any shrink, and it ain't gonna cost you a hundred an hour. What you gotta do is go buy a red convertible with a huge stereo system, buy some of that gangster rap teenybopper shit and start cruising the high school parking lot. Spend a couple of months doin' some panty shuckin' with some 17-year-old cheerleaders. Straighten your spine out a little, get it outta your system and when it's all over you'll realize the good thing you had with your little miss at home. All she'll know is how nice it is you bring home flowers so often. It'll all be just this little smile on your face that she'll never understand."

John lets his chair fall to the floor as he stands up.

"Time's up. Gotta work."

My life sucked. I was a faceless low-paid office weasel. My boss didn't know my last name until she balled me out last week because her assistant had found out my computer password was "dung pump." Over the four years my girlfriend Cassie and I had been together, the initial months of talking, laughing and screwing had devolved into mumbling, fighting and snoring. I was not happy and could not for the life of me break up with her. The words would not form in my lips. I just sank deeper and deeper, feeling more helpless and lost. If I ran the world, schools would stress overall the subject of physics, in particular the theory of inertia. I don't care if it was fucking gym class-every class would start with a recitation of the profound truism that objects in motion are likely to stay in motion, and objects that are stationary are likely to stay that way. I was never much for the fast lane of life and now and for as long as I can remember I was in the bus lane. With a flat. And it didn't seem like I was ever gonna get moving.

I was turning 30 in a month. It just didn't seem right. I lost my virginity when I was 21, an age when my peers were seemingly jaded experts in the ways of dating and mating. I've had the same shitty job for four years, with no end in sight. I made a mental list of famous celebrities who were dead by 30. Another list of those who were already washed up reclusive semi-retirees by 30. Shit, I thought, Drew Barrymore had group sex when she was 12. I was not only far from being a celebrity, but the closest I've come to group sex was being sandwiched between two women in the subway on a high school trip to New York. The only foreign country I'd visited was Canada, which didn't count because it seemed exactly like Minnesota with a lower drinking age. I'd never taken LSD, PCP, XTC, tried S&M or B&D, and wanted to ASAP. With the evil three zero looming big as day before me, I felt like I've come to school late and the finals were already over. As fate would have it, Cassie was leaving town for a month to help with the birth of her sister's baby. I knew this was a sign: I was a rat being plopped down in front of the maze, and I had a month to stumble my way through and really taste life's cheese.

Opportunity soon laid itself before me. Staying late one night, I noticed a new girl working telemarketing during the swing shift. I found out her name was Brenda. She had a white blonde crew cut and came to work wearing a t-shirt that was an ad for a '70s XXX movie called Confessions of a Peanut Butter Freak ("She liked it Creamy Style!" the ad copy leered). On a lark I had once brought home an X-rated video one night for Cassie and I to watch, and she immediately burst into tears. Not only did I have to listen to her explain how pornography degraded sex and violated the civil rights of women, but the video store still charged me $3.99 even though I returned the tape moments after I rented it. She certainly wouldn't have appreciated the humor value of such a shirt, especially when worn at work.

The world Brenda inhabited seemed like a million miles away from the rest of the telemarketers. She swore freely, took long smoke breaks and had seemed to have no desire to coerce lonely, half demented old shut-ins out of their credit card numbers just to make more than the $5.50 an hour base pay. Several nights in a row I stayed late, loitering at the photocopier during my end-of-day invoice distribution. I pretended the copier was jammed, did everything twice, copied blank pages, anything to catch a glimpse of this rare sign of actual life under the florescent lights. Finally, Thursday I heard her tell her cubicle mate that she was having a huge party that weekend. To the copier I went, and waited.

"Do you need help with the copier?" she asked, after a full 10 minutes of histrionic faux struggle.

"Yeah, sure," I answered, aiming for cool but coming closer to retarded.

She grabbed my stack of already thrice-copied invoices and put them in the feeder tray. Time was running out.

"You're Brenda, right?" I asked.
"Uh-huh," she nodded.
"I'm Ed."
"Nice to meet you."
The copier hummed along.
"So, big plans for this weekend?" I shrugged.

I knew that unless she is a really capable liar, she will spill the beans about the party, and unless she finds me totally repugnant, she will ask me if only out of awkward obligation.

"Yeah, my roommates are having a party. Wanna come?"

Bullseye. My plan was far from smooth, but it was effective.

There were the usual age old party-going questions to contend with. Gift or no gift? Bring food? Drink? What should I wear? What were the kids wearing these days (though many of these kids were probably only months younger than I)? Going through the closet was a regular heart punch to the ego. I only owned work-approved duds. I tried on innumerable combinations, but try as I might, I still looked more ready to go milk-bar hopping with Pat & Debby Boone than score with some Alternative Nation sweeties.

At the party, it was hard for me not to shake the feeling that I was a chaperone, or at the very least an undercover cop. The selections on the stereo only brought question marks, and at times I felt like committing the ultimate faux pas of asking them to turn it down. There was plenty of food and booze at hand and runs to refill my plate and glass keep me occupied for at least a few minutes until I actually had to speak to a stranger. I eyed an oddball who looked ripe for small talk. He was in his mid-40s and looked like the big Indian guy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. He confessed to me that he actually was homeless, lived in the woods across the street, had heard the noise and decided to pretend he was invited and come in. Nobody had caught on to his ruse so far, and he had been there over two hours. He asked me to promise not to give him away. I nodded and agreed. Figuring every good confession deserves another, I told him I was turning 30 and this party was me getting a head start on a mid-life crisis. He cracked a smile and told me how when his mother turned 30, her hippie pals made her a cake shaped like a casket and staged a mock funeral.

"Never trust anyone over 30, remember," he winked.

The blood drained from my face. I slammed the rest of my self-made gin and tonic.

"Thanks," I gulped, and sulked away.

It wasn't until three drinks later that I actually got the nerve to talk to women. Jenn The first was a pretty blonde named Jenn. Even in punk rock riot grrl alternative culture, I realized, being pretty, thin and blonde was as essential as it was among the cheerleader / fraternity crowd. Jenn had so many piercings that it looked like she had fallen asleep face-first in a fishing tackle box. She told me that she sang with a ska/punk band named Grimace. I smiled and asked her if they ever let Mayor McCheese sit in on bass. I knew Jenn was talented right then because she is the only person I've known who could actually give me the middle finger without letting go of her beer. One down. How many to go?

A girl who looked about 16 with jet black hair, clown white makeup and a pentagram necklace actually said "Hi" to me in what sounded like a stage whisper. I parried by trying to make small talk about the upcoming Marilyn Manson tour, but kept slipping and calling them Marilyn Munster.

"I think I hear my friend calling me," she said above the din, pointing at nothing in particular.

Finally the inevitable happened: someone asked me why I was there. She was short, a good deal shorter than any of the women at the party. She had a black motorcycle jacket and wore a leopard skin pill box hat pulled over her long bottle-red hair. Her hands were in fists, as if she were permanently ready to deck someone. I told her Brenda and I worked together. Nodding, she asked me if my job was cool. Frankly, "job" and "cool" seemed to be words that do not belong together in a sentence, so I had no idea how to respond. I told her I almost got fired for using the phrase "dung pump." With no further explanation, she laughed and told me that when she temped in the phone company's 1-800 division, she would call up televangilists during her lunch hour and tell them, "Do you realize your phone number spells 1-800-EAT-TWAT?" She laughed real loud, startling everyone around us even with the blaring music. I laughed, too, and it felt good. I liked her.

She told me her name was Laura, and she kept a guarded interest in me the whole night. We played 20 questions. I guess this was my coolness test, because certainly I had no rep or style to proceed me. Favorite tattoo? Whale smoking a cigar and blowing smoke rings through his blowhole, I said, remembering a design on the wall of a biker joint I once went to with my brother. Favorite drink? Anything free. Dream date? New Years Eve in all four time zones, I said, remembering a hypothetical math question from junior high. She actually smiled at that one, so I figured I was doing good. I really found out a few hours later when she offered to give me a ride home and proceeded to nearly chew my face off before even putting the keys into the ignition. I was so nervous only my drunkenness kept me from throwing up.

Laura was not what you would call a stabilizing influence in my life. We would meet everyday at lunch to drink, eat from the CARE packages of gourmet food her mother would send, and boink. With her encouragement, work became my playground. Instead of dreading it, every day was a new opportunity to keep boredom at bay and get paid for it. When the vice president's wife would call anonymously for him like clockwork at 4pm, I began telling her that he had left at noon with his wife. When there was a company memo to gather up all broken and defective chairs and line them up in the downstairs conference room, I added one to the group. After the line of busted chairs with Post-It notes stuck to them reading "Broken Back," "Will Not Lower" and "Wobbly Arms" was my perfectly good chair with a note explaining "Makes Butt Itch." The thought that one of our managers would actually find out I put it there, and hold a formal meeting about my situation, or that the first-generation Cambodian men who were hired to maintain our furniture would somehow try to valiantly repair the chair and its "problem," made me smile to myself for days. I was enjoying it all so much nobody would have ever suspected that I was responsible for any of these ill deeds. Why should they? I was the complete opposite of the disgruntled employee.

Nights with Cassie were usually dinner, watching TV or reading and off to bed at a sensible hour. A night with Laura could involve shooting rats at the city dump with one of her large collection of handguns, homemade voodoo ceremonies or buying each other lap dances over at Wiggles. One night we closed down so many bars that the next day's hangover prohibited me from moving my eyes or head. I had to look at something by turning my whole body in its direction. John thought my stiff-backed movements were so hilarious he called me C-3PO for a week.


It was crazy, maybe even she was crazy. I didn't care. I told Laura about Cassie coming back early on and she said it made no difference and we would deal with that when it happened. Every day was unpredictable. I felt alive. But all along, I knew it was too much fun to last. Sooner or later, it would end.

And it did. One day I called her number only to find a strange voice on the other end. It seems that Laura had left to stay in San Francisco for a unspecified time and had a girlfriend house-sitting until she came back. This woman had no idea how long or short this stay might be, and appeared unconcerned.

I heard from Laura again three weeks after Cassie came back. She called me late at night at home. If that wasn't terrifying enough, she called to tell me that she was pregnant. Her period was late, she went to the women's clinic in San Francisco and it was confirmed. Before I could even suggest it, she told me she had three abortions during her teens, and there was no way she would have another one. I became immobile as she talked, unable to move much less respond in coherent verbiage. She then told me that she had talked to her parents and they had offered her 1000 dollars and a new car if she would marry the baby's father. She decided we should marry and move to Raleigh, North Carolina. She said she feared that if things continued as they were going, no state would allow smoking in public of any kind and her three pack a day habit would soon render her an unemployable social pariah. She remembered that someone had told her that the tobacco interests were so powerful in North Carolina that you could smoke in the maternity ward.

We were married at the city courthouse. 50 bucks, a short speech, fill out a form and we were joined together forever in the eyes of God and the state of Ohio. I was amazed. They didn't even ask for ID. I've had shoe returns that required more effort.

We've been in Raleigh for a month and the 1000 dollars is almost gone. Cassie cried when I told her, cried when I left and when I talked to her yesterday on the phone she was still crying. I got a job washing dishes at a local all-you-can-eat buffet place. Laura works part time at a used record store when not asking the Ouija board what we should name the baby. As of today, boy or girl, she is firm on calling it "Zerbit."

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