Davis has a good bit of prose for us today–a segment of a novel that he is working on which reads well as a stand-alone piece. The novel-in-progress is called Newton’s Cradle, which we take in passing to have something to do with babies and science. Feel the newness of it.
“Nothing But a Good Time” (Excerpt from Newton’s Cradle, Davis Einolf, 2013)
Tim was having trouble finding the best position on the couch to watch Jerry Springer. The couch was too short for him to stretch out all the way, and the arms too high to rest his head or prop up his feet to free up more room. He tried sitting straight up first, with both feet on the ground, but five minutes later he found his hips sliding off the cushion and his back curving into the crease of the couch. Pushing himself back up, Tim drew his left leg up underneath the right to gain more traction and refocused on the domestic dispute on the screen. A couple from Massachusetts was on the show for a confession. The woman was alone on the stage for now with Jerry, sitting in an armchair that was buried by her girth. She was telling Jerry that she and her boyfriend had been dating for almost a year, but he was always working long hours at the freight loading yard and when he came home, he was too tired for sex. She said with a smile, looking at the audience for approval, that she needed to be satisfied, and so she had no choice to start screwing her neighbor. Jerry told a joke that elicited a brief smattering of laughter from the audience. Tim’s left leg started to go numb, the tingling in the tip of his sock prompting him to switch position to a classic newspaper-reading pose: right leg resting on top of the left. His phone rang where it was charging in the kitchen, its preloaded jingle fighting to catch his ear over the audience’s chants of “Jerry, Jerry, Jerry,” as the boyfriend came on stage and immediately sparked a fight with his confessing partner. On the third repeat of a tinny Beethoven’s Fifth, Tim noticed the call and moved his right leg off his now-numbing left leg and proceeded to march the two of them to the other room. “Hello?”
“Oh Tim, thank God you’re there.” It was Melanie. She sounded like she had been running around, but the call was from her work phone, so most likely she had been seated since nine that morning. “I need to ask a big favor.”
“Sure Mel, anything.”
“I left my lunch on the bus this morning.” She paused dramatically as if a desperate robber had held up the bus, snatching her brown bag and running off, leaving her too traumatized to tell a soul. She went on: “And I don’t have time to walk anywhere and get something because Sharon is off sick today and can’t cover for me and Mr. Randall is in another one of his moods and I was wondering if you could drive over here and bring me some lunch?” She had launched all of this so quickly through the phone Tim needed to take a breath himself before responding, but Melanie jumped right back in, “I mean, only if you’re not too busy.”
Tim could hear assorted yells and jeers from the audience over angry shouts from the unhappy couple wafting in from the living room. “No, I’m not too busy.”
“Thank you so much, I will owe you big time.”
“No problem, no problem,” Tim muttered as he opened the fridge, scanning the various cartons but not quite sure what he was looking for.
“Love you too, honey.” Click.
The refrigerator air was light and refreshing in his face. Tim stood in the fluorescent fridge light for a moment, eyes closed, remembering summer days as a child asking his mother if he could leave the dinner table for some more milk. Then he would run to their towering Sears-catalog Maytag and thrust his head inside to escape the un-air conditioned Jersey heat. After he didn’t return with the milk right away, his mother would catch on and yell for him to stop wasting electricity and get back to finish his greens. His house now was set to a cool 70 degrees and he still couldn’t find anything that screamed to be grabbed out of the fridge, so he closed the door and wandered back towards the couch and the Jerry Springer show. There were three people on the stage now besides the towering bouncers and Jerry himself: the couple plus another man, presumably the neighbor/lover. The new character looked like an afterthought next to the robust couple: emaciated and pale, with drooping skin on his face that had long ago given up in the fight against gravity.
Tim sat down on the arm of the couch and tried the right over left position again as the skinny man eased into the chair provided him. The same make and model of chair, which was dwarfed by the other two, easily swallowed up the lover. He kept both arms inside the armrests; elbows pressing against the sides and hands neatly folded in his lap. Jerry was pontificating now, addressing the new character and the audience alternately; asking the first a leading question about the affair and eliciting the proper response from the second. Four or five questions in, the first man, who had been ignored for most of three minutes, spoke up to his girlfriend concerning the weight of her lover and included a pithy crack about him needing to be on top. Never before had Tim seen a man so thin and tired-looking move so quickly as the insulted lover did then; rising from his chair as a flash and streaking towards the boyfriend to pummel him with his bony fists. All the characters on the stage were on their feet, the two men trying in vain to land blows on the other through the poor security guard caught between them. The woman hit at both of them with her purse, yelling over their laborious grunting. Tim stretched across the couch to grab the remote and turned off the television.
Tim was alone in the house. The air conditioning wasn’t humming and the only sound was the muted electric drone of the fridge. Tim found himself once again standing in the chilled breeze of the open-doored refrigerator, staring dumbly at the packaged meats, the raw vegetables in bags, the block of cheese, the condiment bottles arrayed side by side. He closed the door without touching anything, bewildered at the years of packed lunches Melanie had stuffed in the backpacks of their children and prepared for him and her to carry to work. Without extending his search to the pantry and the cupboards where he knew sometimes cans or jars were stuffed, Tim grabbed a coat from the closet and his car keys from their ring by the thermostat and headed out the backdoor.
Behind the wheel Tim felt more at ease; backing out of the driveway was muscle memory after years of commuting and perhaps it was the absence of routine that made it impossible for him to stay comfortable on the couch. The radio turned on with the car and was already halfway through a classic song that Tim had loved in the Hair Metal days. He had never had rocker hair, even when he wouldn’t have been stared at for having it. The commitment to grow hair for that long was too much; it was a lifestyle choice. Tim sang along with what words he knew, drumming on the steering wheel in a semblance of the drum beat:
I’m always workin’ slavin’ every day
Gotta get away from the same old same old
The song only lasted Tim a stoplight and four or five stop signs and when it was over the silence wasn’t given a chance to build; the void was instantly filled with the chattering of a male and female radio host pair. They were selling the idea of free tickets to a festival if the listener would only try their luck and give them a call. Except for a washed up third of a once popular rock group, the festival’s line up was riddled with identically perfect pop singers and artificially constructed folk-pop bands. These concert announcements were nothing more than preludes to a block of advertisements, so Tim turned the radio’s volume to its minimum even as the hosts were rattling off artist’s names. When he was in high school Tim had talked to a boy off and on who had always participated in the radio show giveaways of the time. The boy had worked it into an art; he knew exactly the moment to call in to the station and his persistence saw him perpetually skipping school to drive down to the fairgrounds or up to a New York concert venue. The stories he’d tell each day afterwards would draw a considerable crowd in the hallway as each student tried to imagine the rebellious jumping and screaming of rock and roll legends within the confines of the lockers and the glow of fluorescent bulbs that defined their school years.
After a time, Tim parked his car on the street’s skirt and walked into No Chiquito Taco, an aging taqueria located just past a stretch of high end groceries and bar/grills. The sign hanging above the door showed a small Mexican woman in traditional attire holding up a taco larger than her head; the interior was covered with plastic sombreros and tacky little Mexican flags. Tim had first come here roughly four years prior on the way home from work. It had been a rough day, with a deadline coming up for a big contract, and everyone stayed at work an hour or two past quitting time to make sure nothing went wrong. Tim had known that Melanie would be out with the kids at a team dinner for Alice’s cross country team and no one and no food would be at home when he got there. Instead the seedy taco restaurant called to him like a beacon, literally; its marigold yellow paint caught the late-afternoon light and added to the light streaming through its picture windows. The food was cheap, greasy, served on paper plates, and nigh unto orgasmic. A few months later Tim had loaded up the whole family and treated them to his newfound guilty pleasure. John scarfed down a quesadilla, Alice insisted on a burrito with only cheese and refried beans, and Melanie watched the grease slide off her taco and seep through the paper tableware for a minute before grabbing a fork and eating half of her meal. After that Tim had brought John a couple times when the girls were busy, and he made frequent stops after late nights at work.
This time Tim was the only customer in the place, as was happening frighteningly more often as time went on. No employees could be seen through the ordering/serving window and there was no bell to ring for service, so Tim leaned on the counter and waited. A hushed flurry of Spanish emanated from somewhere in the back behind the kitchen and a short Mexican man with a stained white apron came forward and with a smile asked Tim for his order. Tim hadn’t been there frequently enough to be known by name or by favorite dish but he was sure they must recognize his face at least. He ordered two carnitas burritos with all the works and one guava and one mango Jarritos soda in the glass bottle; “Yes, to go please.”
Once he had paid, Tim took a seat at one of the vacant white-washed tables and waited for his food. More people materialized from the back room, or so he reasoned, based on the unseen voices engaged in singsong conversation in rapid Spanish that grew louder with the fresh sound of sizzling meat and vegetables. Someone turned on a radio in the kitchen set to an all-Spanish station. The talking died down as a bright song came on and in chorus the cooks began to voice the words; most in a reedy baritone, but one in a powerful tenor complete with vibrato and a passionate tone. Tim had only taken Spanish through his junior year of high school but was good at speaking it then and was able to catch the first couple lines of the song, aided by the crisp enunciation typical of Mexican singers.
Me gustan los parties y las desveladas
Lunes a Domingo y toda la semana
Me la paso alegre y disfruto la vida
Y asi seguire hasta mi ultimo dia
A few minutes went by and the song finished and was replaced by another which only the tenor knew the words to so he sang alone. The sounds of cooking died down and the short man who had taken Tim’s order leaned across the counter and held out a plastic bag with two tin-foil wrapped cylinders in it. As Tim was rising to grab his food the man turned around and pulled two tall glass bottles from a cooler beside him and set them next to the food. “Anything else?” He asked.
“Thank you, I’m fine,” Tim replied snatching up the bag in one hand and grasping the necks of the soda bottles in between three fingers.
“Have a nice day,” said the man in the white apron, smiling and leaning against the counter until Tim made his way out the door. Only one cook remained behind, scraping the griddle with his long spatula to push away the grease. The others had all returned to whatever employee lounge they had been in before Tim arrived, but left the radio playing in the kitchen.
From the taqueria it took Tim less than half an hour to drive to Melanie’s office. No one was on the roads going his direction but Tim was still stuck stopping for a red light every time he reached the speed limit. Melanie worked for Stephen Randall, a big real-estate developer well-known locally among the free liberal tabloids for strong-arming a nearby township council into zoning a mall where a wetlands restoration was planned. Tim mostly knew of him from the photos of his face slapped across bus benches downtown. Melanie was, and had been for near to five years, Mr. Randall’s personal assistant. That is to say, one of his personal assistants; he was apparently sufficiently eminent to warrant three women to look after his affairs. His assistants weren’t secretaries: that term had too many negative connotations, and there was a receptionist for the building who filled those shoes already. Instead, his assistants did everything from drive out to prospective build sites to escort Mr. Randall to dinners with investors. Melanie had often joked to Tim as she had put on black tights and high heels to match her cocktail dress that Mr. Randall enjoyed going to dinner with different younger women by his side so much he should have been in the movie business instead. Most of the time the assistants – or at least the two that weren’t out and about – simply sat at desks and wrestled against the mountains of paperwork involved in property acquisition and sales.
The office was low and made mostly of glass for a 60s modern feel, with a parking lot that was just large enough to always have a spot open for visitors but not so small that it ever looked lonely, even at night when most of the employees had driven home. Melanie took the bus because she said the ride there gave her time to prepare for the day ahead and the ride back was a great time to unwind. Parking next to a convertible BMW near the entrance Tim felt that he would probably take the bus as well. He placed the guava soda and one burrito on the floor of the passenger seat, praying that the grease wouldn’t leak on the mat. With the mango soda and plastic bag in hand Tim walked past the manicured lawn and the transplanted petunias into the lobby of Randall Realty LLC.
“Mr. Weaver, how nice to see you,” chirped a pretty young woman sitting behind a half-oval marble reception desk twenty feet past the automatic double doors Tim had just entered through. She wore a modest purple blouse with non-dangling gold earrings and hair straightened to the point that it seemed to stand still as she moved her head. The lobby was calm like the lobby of a hotel late at night; the only sounds were occasional footsteps from a hallway, the gentle shutting of doors, and a faint saxophone and piano number vented from unseen speakers. The pretty woman finished her greeting: “It has been quite a while, hasn’t it?”
Tim had no idea whether he knew the receptionist or not; maybe from a company picnic or something that Mel had brought him to. A stenciled metal plaque resting on the desk said Marie. “Yes, it certainly has Marie.” Tim raised his arms laden with food suggestively. “Is Melanie here?”
The receptionist’s smiley demeanor didn’t let up for a moment as she flashed Tim a contrived look of surprise (“Oh that’s why you’re here”) and turned her head but not her attention to her computer screen. Before she could have possibly scoured a calendar or read a message she looked back at Tim and said bouncily, “I’m sorry, but Mel is in a telephone conference right now with Mr. Randall.” Then she glanced around and leaned forward, adding in a secretive little voice: “He’s in one of his moods today, you know.” Tim nodded and his eyes wandered down the hallway. Instantly snapped back into receptionist-mode Marie suggested that Tim take a seat and began to peck furiously at her keyboard with her index fingers.
The seats were comfortable and thin enough between the armrests to save Tim from making a choice of leaning left or right, but the cushions were too long from front to back; there was no way to sit straight up and the only way to avoid slipping into a slouch was to sit straight up. Due to the impasse, Tim was forced to sit on the edge of the cushion, gingerly resting the Mexican food on his knees. He remembered the first time he had been to the realty office. He hadn’t stepped inside, but sat out in the car with Melanie, windows rolled up against the winter cold and their breath quickly fogging the glass. Mel had been wearing crisp, business everything; a lint-free black blazer over a white wide-lapel blouse opened just enough, a pencil skirt that stopped just above her knees, a pair of brand new sheer pantyhose, and two-inch black heels. That morning Tim had patiently admired her as she built her image, picking over every detail of her hair and makeup like a thespian preparing for the scrutiny of Broadway lights. In the frosty parking lot in front of the gleaming building she had paused in the passenger seat, straight backed in order to keep her hair pristine and taking deep breaths. “Honey, you’ll blow them away,” Tim had said.
“I know, I know.” There was a silence.
In a smaller voice Tim continued, “Even if you don’t, it’s okay. You don’t need this job.”
Melanie shifted in the seat to look at her husband and sighed, as if she had known precisely what he would say. “Look, Tim, I know how you feel but you have to step outside of yourself on this one. The kids are old enough to be on their own and I’m tired of just wasting away when they’re at school, or at a game, or at a friend’s house. When you’re at work I’m sitting on my hands and it’s driving me batty. Anyway, Alice is going to be looking at college soon and it wouldn’t hurt to think more about tuition and things like that, especially in this economy. This job will be good for everybody.” The last line of her almost rehearsed speech was in the same tone she used when one her kids broke a plate in their early years; the ‘I’m not upset but don’t do it again’ voice. Tim said nothing and stared at the steering wheel while Melanie leaned over and kissed him warmly on the cheek, leaving a speck of burgundy lipstick. Then, with one final breath she had stepped out into the chilly air and walked into the lobby to blow her interviewers away.
In the lobby, Tim stood up from the extra-long cushion and paced back to the front desk. “How long did you say Mel would be?” Tim knew full well the woman had avoided an estimate before. Not long, she assured him with another compulsory flick of the eyes to her screen. Tim did not return to his seat, but instead leaned on Marie’s desk and gazed around himself. She pecked a few more keys on her keyboard, but his proximity required polite conversation.
“Mel told me that you’ve had some troubles at work?” Marie said with an upward inflection.
“Yeah.” Tim wanted her to say it. Marie hesitated to go on.
“She said you had been laid off?” Again with the upward end; the receptionist was unwilling to break her politeness with a statement, though she had undoubtedly heard the whole gruesome story in the break room or at an informal lunch.
“No, I was fired.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.” Helplessly her lips searched for something to say like a fish grasping for broken up pellets and the top of its tank, but the floundering receptionist was saved by a gentle ring from her phone. With a return to her smile and a held up hushing finger she picked up the phone and spoke, then nodded, then put it down. “I’m so sorry,” she said again, “but I have to step out for a moment. Excuse me.” She stood up to her full height of maybe five feet three inches and clicked and clacked away down the hallway on stiletto heels. Tim was left once again alone then save for the ethereal crooning of the elevator music and the receding footsteps. He noticed he was choking the neck of the soda bottle and the condensation on its glass has warmed and felt like sweat. On the abandoned reception desk there were coffee mugs, some with stains, some with pens. A small handcrafted clay bowl held breath mints and Tootsie Rolls. There were no pictures of children, or friends, or family, just a computer-printed and cheaply framed picture of the office staff at a Halloween party, Mel in the back with a floppy wizard’s hat that one of the kids had worn years before and a smile that she had worn when she had come back to the car that wintry day and told Tim that she had been hired on the spot.
When Marie came back to her desk a minute later there was no one in the lobby. On the front desk, a glass bottle with orange liquid made a ring on the marble and a crumpled plastic bag slowly leaked brown grease out of one corner, a peculiarity amidst the stark swirl of black and whites within the metamorphic stone.