The clotted summer of 1984: LA Olympics, Michael Jackson, a senile reascension of the Presidential throne. I worked four-to-midnight at a type shop in Philadelphia, the Port Richmond section by the Delaware River, one of the city's fouler swaths. Rundown blocks of toothless whites. Chemical fumes from a nearby plant seeped daintily into our tiny offices in the annex of a printing warehouse. I was a year out of college. A long row of windows faced the street from our building and one gleaming night in midshift a volley of rocks crashed through the tired glass, shards and woodwork exploding to the floor a few feet in front of my desk. I leapt to my feet in terror, dropping the skinny sandwich I'd been eating, and the foreman misunderstood me, saying "Don't bother chasing them, they're just kids."
I made forays into alcohol. There were landscapes to be witnessed in that tilted country and soundtracks for my listening pleasure. The carpet in my efficiency arose to make acquaintance with my brow. Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade never left the turntable, a double vinyl maelstrom. I'd wake at noon to grievous stains, attempt breakfast while brownbagging dinner for work, those skinny sandwiches of cheese or peanut butter.
After midnight I always had a ride home with Gary, one of the proofers. One AM, two AM, so humid you felt the city had just heaved up from the ocean floor, dank and still tropically steaming. Gary's car shot down I-95 like a space flight under billboards and strung-out lamps, then off Exit 17 direct to my building's shadowed door, 15th Street below Spruce. I was lucky: Gary lived across the river in Woodbury, NJ with a crippled wife, he had something going on with a waitress in town or it would have been public transit for me. The El and buses were sorry enough in daylight and I learned to appreciate another's adultery.
There were whores up and down my block, weekend nights especially, almost as bad as Locust Street. Spandex, wigs, tottering heels, faces like stale painted cakes. Horny as I was I never dreamt of them. These women lacked anything for me to ruin. Instead there was a gallery receptionist, sweetly redheaded, who stopped returning my calls after the second date. I continued to phone, hanging up when she answered, spacing these calls that there might be some doubt as to their source. How could there be any doubt?
"I know it's you and I want it to stop."
Gary glared strictly through thick glasses as he steered down I-95. There was an object on his scalp intended to facsimilate hair. What must his waitress look like? He'd seen me at my desk one time reading St. Augustine, a seminar textbook I'd neglected to sell, and he remained impressed ever after.
"Keep at it, Jim. Smart man. Always improving yourself."
Marci was the other night proofer and somehow she'd learned all. Late forties, sprawling pink hair, voluminous sweaters, she tended a fine bitterness in her cubicle.
"Do you know about his wife? You want to know why he goes into town every night? He's not doing you any favors. Let me tell you the kind of favor he's doing."
I was Gary's convenience, an alibi with a bloodstream, the fellow he really and truly went out of his way to drive home every night. Did he press my number upon his wife, ask her to call me if she didn't believe his story?
"Good man, Jim. Keep at it. You've got your whole life ahead of you."
At my desk I aligned a ruler with manuscripts from clients. Calculating picas and point sizes and fonts: Helvetica, Bodoni, Jensen, names that might have been those of theologians. I penciled computer specs in the margins of pages, gave them to the typesetters to key into their machines. Again and again until midnight. A guy in the paste-up department brought in a cube TV for the Olympics. People crowded around at breaks. When Mary Decker tripped and fell in the 3,000 meters, we laughed like fiends. When the network reran the tape of her anguish, the track star weeping on the grass with her pulled hip muscle, we laughed like fiends. But mostly we tried to watch unscrambled cable porn with little to no success. A breast or two would surface from the higgledy-piggledyness onscreen, waver towards a rampant dong, recoil and vanish as though by divine edict. Somebody should have killed us.
"I know it's you and I want it to stop."
Some nights after Gary let me out in front of my building, left me standing on the pavement with my key in hand, I turned away from the door and wandered the streets to any number of bars: McGlinchey's, Dirty Frank's, the Pine Street Beverage Room. Dirty wraiths blew upon me and asked for money. Jukeboxes heaved with beats. Every mug I finished left inner rings of foam and I counted these as the rings of cut trees, thinking of months vanished. It was not so long since I'd walked across a campus with books and papers in my shoulderbag, with good grades and recommendations and an undying weariness at the sight of a classroom. A man with three shot glasses grouped before him on the bar touched fire to the vodka in them and swallowed each in succession, blue flames and liquid, the small crowd cheering.
"I want this to stop and I mean it."
I never learned what sort of cripple she was: if her spine was wracked, if she lived in a wheeled chair, if she could feed herself or not. If there were others in the family to tend her. If she'd been born to this state or wrecked by some circumstance of later life. If she'd been told my name. If she waited for Gary after midnight, if he left her to sit in the dark. If she saw through him like my receptionist saw through me.
About the author:
Joshua Roberts lives in Philadelphia. His previous work has appeared in Harper's, Eyeshot.net, Blue Mesa Review and other publications. His novel, Mars, is having a harder time of it these days since his agent recently took early retirement; applications are currently being accepted.