Bill went into the men’s room to get dressed. He had not put on his used underwear from the day before, so he had no underwear on. It was, in the scope of things, just a minor inconvenience. He reminded himself, and he had meant to do this many times already, to put a full change of clothes in his car to have there.
When he came out of the men’s room he heard Bea and Mary talking. Bea was telling Mary that he had no drawers on because he went into the men’s room to change. Mary was telling her she didn’t care, that it was none of her business. They both had a good laugh at it. But first thing, Bea asked him if he’d been home. Bill said no, that he’d spent the night with Arlene and they should both get their minds out of the gutter because it was nothing like they were already imagining.
Mary shook her head.
They all went upstairs, Bill walking behind Bea and reaching up her kitchen dress all the while up the stairs. He managed to cop himself a good feel, and when the feeling got good, Bea stopped and just stood there for him so he could continue feeling her.
“Damn, boy,” she said. “You all should have started that before we came upstairs. I’d have taken you into the party room and given you a party.”
“It’s never too late.”
“So let’s turn around.”
“I’ve got things to do. So do you.”
“Don’t think I won’t catch up with you later,” said Bea.
First thing Bill did when he got up on the kitchen floor was take a cup of coffee. Mary did that too and Bea was right behind her. Then they were all there, Bill and Mary standing on Bea’s station, Bea sitting on her stool like she always did and starting into reading the racing page in The Dispatch. Also like always, she asked if they wanted to play numbers or lay down a bet on the horses. Bill played numbers for both him and Mary, but neither he nor Mary made any bets on the horses. They never did.
While they stood there, Bill and Mary did an inventory of the things in Bea’s reach-in. They checked the chocolate pudding, the rice pudding, all the pies and the boiled shrimp. Doing so, they each made a mental note of what they needed to cook for over there. Bill knew that Mary was making a mental note because once she looked away she told him that they needed to make rice pudding. Bill replied that he thought the chocolate pudding would make it through the day. He also said that he thought they ought to run shrimp salad as a special to get rid of the old cocktail shrimp. Mary said that that wasn’t a bad idea.
And so it went.
When they finished their coffee, Bill and Mary headed to the back prep station. Bill looked in Mary’s walk-in where he could see the leftover round. He could see there was plenty to start off the day with, so he took a moment and went through the entire walk-in box to see what was there and what needed to come out to get used up. That done, a new mental note in his head, he came back out and headed down the stairs without saying a word to Mary.
He was speeding pretty good now. But he was still tired and he knew he needed to sleep. He knew sooner or later he would have to crash and that was never a happy moment. Before he got the round to carry it upstairs, he took himself a good, long swig of bourbon. Then he popped another black beauty, one he’d been keeping in his pocket.
He popped the black beauties as he drove to work. He had not gotten any sleep at all, but this was not the first time he’d pulled an all-nighter. Being young had its advantages and being able to stay awake all night was one of them. Of course the drugs helped, and he had enough drugs to last for as long as he needed them to.
Mary, Bea and Tommy were waiting in the parking lot when he got there. He was not late at all, was right on time, and as per the usual, he saw them getting out of their cars when they saw him pulling into the parking lot. If it had been him there already, as soon as the last person arrived he would have been getting out of his car.
So there they were lined up at the front door while Tommy opened it with his keys. Bill was standing behind Mary who was standing next to Bea. As they waited, he reached up and pinched Mary on her behind under her coat.
“Ain’t you got nothing better to do?” she asked.
“You could pinch me,” Bea said.
“I don’t need to hear this,” Tommy said. “I don’t need to hear it, I don’t want to hear it and you’d all be better off if none of it was happening.” Just before he opened the door he turned back toward them and said, “Mark my words.”
They walked through the hall and did what they always did. Bill shut down the burglar alarm. Bea and Mary went into the kitchen, turned on the lights and put down their things. Bea started to make coffee right away in the small Bunn machine. Mary went around back to her station and read the notice board, a standard cork board with pushpins. The menus were posted there as were any notes she had left for herself. When she came back around to the line she asked Bill if prime rib had been left over. Bill told her yes but they still had to cook one. He said he’d check downstairs when they got down there to see if a round needed to be cut.
Before they went down the stairs, the coffee dripping in the coffee machine, Bill flipped on the exhaust fans. The kitchen woke up immediately. There was a groan, a hum, a squeal almost like a loose fan belt on a car when it was being started, and then the exhaust fans kicked in, droned and polluted the air with its heavy noise.
With the exhaust fans running, Bill turned on the Garland. He opened the grease drawer to make sure it was empty, which it was because he had emptied it himself. Then he looked up into the mesh squares which were the filters for the exhaust fans. They seemed pretty clean. They were professionally washed once a week.
Downstairs, Bill went straight to the meat room. He checked inside the walk-in to see that Henry Lee had left a round already cut. All he had to do was cart that big chunk of meat up the stairs.
When he returned to the linen room, before he actually got to it, Bea tossed him a uniform. He saw Mary reaching in to get herself a kitchen dress. Then he watched as she began stripping, Bea too. In a few quick moments, both Bea and Mary had hung up their coats and stripped down to bare feet and underclothes. Mary wore a white slip and a white bra. Big as she was, Bea wore full old-lady drawers and a bra fuller than Mary’s.
Carrying his uniform as he’d caught it, a smile on his face, Bill stepped up to them. He kissed Bea on the bare skin of her breasts, first one then the other. He kissed Mary on her lips then he reached down, lifted up her slip and kissed her on her white panties.
Mary slapped him upside the head.
Bill reached his hand down and patted Arlene on the butt. “Somehow I get the idea we’ll have plenty of time to talk about it,” he said. “For right now, bottom line is I survived. Most important, I learned, and not for the first time either, that God is there with us and He has His own plans for us.”
“And you know this how?” Arlene asked. She reached behind her and lifted her robe, moved Bill’s hand so that it was on her bare behind.
Bill kneaded her flesh gently. He allowed himself to enjoy touching her but he did not do anything overtly sexual. He found the juncture of her thighs and her buttocks and played there a bit then moved his hand up to the small of her back. He held her firmly against him, leaned in and kissed her, a gentle kiss at first, then an exploratory one. He felt Arlene eagerly kiss back so that their tongues met and played together.
Bill thought as they kissed. He recalled the second night in the workhouse when the tough came for him, when the tough asked him what he was in for, when without thinking he responded truthfully, saying it was for assault and battery. The tough asked him if it was his wife he beat up. Bill told him, no, it was a cop.
That wasn’t exactly true. The statement was true but the implication was quite incorrect. He didn’t beat up anybody. He grabbed the guy closest to him but others grabbed him from behind, knocked him out and carted him to the paddy wagon. They weren’t cops either. They were FBI.
Bill remembered. Bill would remember for his whole life. Bill would never forget. Bill could never forget. He could never forget any of it.
He’d put the tough in a quandary and the tough, maybe a real tough guy, was probably not too bright. He stood looking puzzled, as if in a dilemma. Bill remembered seeing him thinking, trying to decide what course of action to take next. Bill’s answer had caught him off guard, completely surprised him.
Luckily and most fortunately, the tough nodded, turned and walked away, his crew following behind him.
Later, locked in the workhouse, Bill had plenty of time to reason it through. If the tough went on and attacked him, he would be attacking someone who had fought a cop. That was bad etiquette. Then, in a different light, if Bill had attacked and beaten up a cop, maybe, Bill imagined the tough was figuring, maybe Bill could take him or maybe this guy he had approached would give him such a good fight that he might lose his status as the dorm tough.
That’s how it worked down.
Arlene’s tongue tasted good. His hand on her back kept her pressed tightly to him. He could feel her relaxing against him, felt her letting her body mesh with his.
“You going to tell me?” Arlene asked. “I’m interested in why you believe God is there with us.”
“Of course I’m going to tell you,” Bill said.
Bill moved his hand from where it was back down to where her thighs joined and met her buttocks. He pressed his fingers between her thighs indicating that she should spread them.
At first Arlene did not move her legs, but when Bill increased the pressure of his fingers, she took his hint.
“What?” she said.
“I don’t know,” said Bill.
“You want me?” Arlene asked.
“I don’t know,” said Bill. “I’m certainly thinking about it. You certainly are appealing. But no matter what, now isn’t the right time.”
He touched Arlene but only for a few seconds, just long enough for her to kiss him even harder and moan slightly.
“I’m only working lunch. Tommy hasn’t given me extra shifts yet.” Arlene shifted in the chair. “My ass is getting numb,” she said. Then, “You want some coffee?”
“You willing to work out west?” Bill asked. He nodded yes to the coffee and then they were both standing up.
“Sure,” said Arlene. She led the way into the kitchen.
Bill leaned against the kitchen counter as Arlene went about setting up the coffee. When she had the percolator on the stove, she stepped over to Bill and invited him to take her in his arms.
“How would that work?” she asked.
“I’d ask Robert to have you worked into their schedule so you could have as many shifts as you needed. You might have to work one shift in one place one shift in the other sometimes on the same day.”
“That’s okay with me. I just need to make money.”
Arlene leaned against Bill as he leaned against the counter and fixed it so that his arms were settled about her back. She snuggled on him, kind of sniffed him up.
“Thanks for being a gentleman,” she said. “Thanks for being a friend.”
“I was wondering why me,” said Bill. “I mean we hardly know each other.”
“Yeah, but sometimes that’s the best way. Sometimes when someone isn’t going to be a part of your life forever it’s easiest to tell them what’s deep down in your soul. It’s not easy to admit you’re scared out of your wits. And believe me, I’m scared out of my wits.”
“So they took me right from my trial to the workhouse,” Bill said. “The judge asked me if I had anything to say and when I started to tell them that the police weren’t telling the truth, he cut me off mid-sentence, banged down the gavel, said ‘policeman don’t lie,’ and pronounced me guilty. They put me in handcuffs, ushered me to the holding cell, and I don’t know, maybe an hour, maybe two hours later I was on my way.
“I never got a chance to say goodbye to my fiancé or my friends. I never got a chance to get money for the commissary, not that I knew anything about it anyway. I never got a chance to do anything. It happened so fast I didn’t know what hit me.
“I was shackled hands and feet. That‘s the way they transported prisoners. And then I was on the bus with some other prisoners. The bus made stops to pick up other prisoners and off we went to the workhouse.
“I wanted to cry. I wanted to cry so bad I didn’t know what to do with myself. I’ve never been so scared in my life and I had no idea what was gonna happen to me. All I knew was that I was scheduled to be in there for the next three weeks and there was no way out of it.”
Bill stroked Arlene’s back and kept her pressed close to him. Because he had not slept he knew he was going to have to pop some black beauties. Meanwhile, Arlene had left the coffee pot on a high flame and he could hear the water starting to boil. He looked over to the stove and could see the water popping up into the little bubble glass on top of the percolator. The coffee’s aroma permeated the air in the kitchen.
Arlene kissed Bill on his cheek. “Go on and finish the story,” she said.
“It’s a long story,” said Bill.
Ain’t it funny how the night moves!
They talked until almost 5 o’clock in the morning. Arlene laid it out directly. She had no money, which is why she had to drop out of the University. Her mother didn’t have medical insurance, or she actually had some but not enough to pay for what she really needed. Medicaid would cover some of the costs but certainly not all. Her father had run off. She had no brothers or sisters, she had no other family that could really help. Maybe, she told Bill, some people would refer to her as white trash.
Bill would remember that she blushed when she said this. He would remember thinking the expression trailer trash but he would also remember that he’d been taught not to classify people. He’d been taught to treat people as people, to treat them as they treated him.
Bill told her there was nothing wrong with being poor. He told her there was nothing wrong with being a hard-working person, a hard-working regular Joe. He told her how he’d given up a free education at City University of New York to come out to OSU. He told her the only reason he was able to do it was because he was able to get into a work-study program which paid most of his tuition and gave him a job to help pay for his books. He told her he beat the dorm room because his brother was there, but he only lived with his brother for the first month. He told her living with his brother was pure hell.
Arlene never asked for a foot rub. She sat with the robe drawn about her and her legs tight together. She spoke about her mother possibly dying. The prospects of it made her tear up again and almost cry. She told him she never asked anyone for anything in her life, not even her mother because she’d worked for herself from the time she was fourteen. But she was asking now. She was asking God to help her and her mother. She was asking Bill to help her get the shifts she needed. She told Bill she was also asking him to hold her when she needed holding.
“I know I’ve already said it,” she said to Bill as if it were the last thing she was going to say. “I’m so scared I don’t know what to do with the feeling. I’m too goddamn young to be an orphan and my mother is way too young to die.”
Bill just looked at her. For most of the time she talked that’s all he did. He’d wanted to get up and hold her but he kept himself in check and kept himself a gentleman. He sat, he listened and he thought.
“You know,” he said, “I haven’t really told anybody this other than the people who went through it with me, but when I got busted and I knew I was going to jail, I was so scared and so depressed that I couldn’t get out of bed. I stayed in bed, literally, for weeks and weeks. It got so bad I cut the first six weeks of the final English seminar, the last required course for all graduating seniors majoring in English. I almost blew the one chance I had to go on and graduate.”
Bill reached out for Arlene. He took her hands. He looked at the clock that was on her dresser and saw that it was almost time for him to be getting ready to go to work.
“You late girl tonight?” he asked.
Lots of things in his life Bill would never forget. When he thought about it, he could still remember his mother laying on the sofa. She was dead. He was a kid. He stared at her and from time to time he thought he could see her stomach rising as if she were breathing. But she wasn’t breathing. She would never breathe again.
He could remember his father laid up in intensive care after his valve surgery, some twenty-four years later. The shock of seeing him there, the hospital gown laid open, the coarsely sewed stitches down his chest, all the wires and tubes he was hooked up to—that was one thing. The limp, drooping side of his face and the immobile arm and leg, the wholly immobile one side of his body, that was another thing. Nevertheless it was all part of the first. The most remarkable thing of all, the one he could never forget, was his father motioning with his good hand to the pillow to his lips, to the pillow to his lips.
Bill would never forget that on that day his father wanted him to smother him.
Of course he couldn’t know it yet but he would later come to realize that he would never forget Arlene sitting there naked weeping on the toilet. Her feet pointed inward so her toes were almost touching. The shiny, clear-painted, French-pedicured toenails stood out, perfections amidst the imperfect. Her legs were together at the knees, her thighs tight against each other. Her pink-nipple breasts, cone-shaped and non-droopy, pointed forward. Her elbows were tucked into her sides, her face buried in her hands.
Wow, Bill thought. Looking at her, moving into the bathroom and standing before her, he wondered how they had gone from so happily high in the bed naked together and spooning to here with Arlene now weeping uncontrollably. All he had done, the way he saw it, was ask her what she really wanted to tell him, as if she had some hidden agenda, as if there were something she truly wanted to tell him but had not yet divulged.
What he had to do was simple, or at least so he thought, or at least this was what his instincts told him. He stepped forward and got to his knees right before her as she sat there. He took his hands and placed them on the top of her thighs. He leaned forward and kissed first one knee and then the next. Then he reached up with both his hands and gently took her hands in his.
“Shhh,” he said. Her hands in his, he kissed each one softly then began kissing each finger gently. He could see her face now, could see her eyes. They were reddish, wet and non-bright.
“Shhh,” he said again. Now that he could see her face, her hands still in his, he reached his head forward and upward. He kissed her softly once on each cheek.
“So I guess there’s some things you really want to tell me,” he said.
“Fuck you,” said Arlene.
“So I guess that means I’m right. Maybe we should meet up in the bedroom and talk.”
“Maybe we should,” said Arlene.
When she joined him, he had already put on his pants and his T-shirt. He was still barefoot. He sat on the edge of the bed.
Arlene went to her closet and retrieved a bathrobe from inside it. Facing away from him, she slipped her arms into it and tied it around her. She was no longer crying, he could see when she turned toward him. It was obvious she had dried her eyes.
“So,” Bill said, “pull up a chair and let’s talk.”
Arlene took the one armchair that was there in the bedroom and dragged it so she was sitting opposite him where he sat.
“I’ll rub your feet if you like,” said Bill.