I was raised in South Stamford, Connecticut. Far enough away from downtown Stamford that we couldn’t hear the continuous construction of buildings, yet close enough to see it grow before our very own eyes. Watching tall glass buildings rise downtown was something like watching a flower grow. You see it sprout one day, and before you know it, Wow! The damned thing is in full bloom. But no matter how wonderfully my city is growing, something about it has always seemed so unobtainable. And so out of reach to someone with little means.
My side of town is the pits. Dull as the desert. It’s the kind of place that doesn’t encourage big dreams, only the priority of getting by or getting over. My pop is in sanitation; at least that’s what he calls it. I say he’s been a goddamned garbage man for as long as I can remember. Mom was always home taking care of me and my brother, Troy. By the time we were old enough to talk back, to curse, or to sneak and peek at girlie magazines, Mom started taking care of the neighbors’ kids. When she wasn’t doing that she was doing hair, running a raggedy at-home beauty salon. But all that shit did was chase me and Troy out of the house. The smell of chemicals and soiled baby diapers is a mix that should be labeled as toxic by somebody, somewhere, somehow.
Our neighborhood couldn’t be called a neighborhood like the ones with newspaper boys, ice cream trucks, and folks walkin’ their dogs. Newspaper boys would get robbed if they were to come down Dakota Street. So would the ice cream truck, which was why the vendor always parked his shit blocks away where a cop could be expected to drive by. And we had our share of dogs. But they weren’t considered pets. Just like the stray cats, the rats that scurried around the alleys, and the mice and roaches that called our house their home, dogs were just as much a nuisance as the rodents and insects.
A lot of times me and Troy would find something to do, for lack of community programs. We’d go by the park and join in with other kids from around our way, playing dodge ball, wiffle ball, or hide-and-seek. When that got played out, we tried the big boys’ games like basketball, spades, or smoking. Lucky for me the smoking thing never stuck. That first try was a shock to my lungs and the coughing that went with it was the kind that hurt, not like a response to an itch in my throat, but some real hurting cough.
Besides those limited activities, there were a big variety of girls around us all the time, like we were popular or some shit. But that never mattered. Jody, Faydra, and Patti were the “it girls” on our block, but I think Troy and I had our overdose of female odors to the point of nausea on account of that funk that hung in the air whenever Mom had more than six or seven females in our living room for any extended period of time. Fish, feet, and fur. Euchh!
Being turned off by girls pushed us into other endeavors. We quickly learned that there wasn’t much you could do without money, so we got odd jobs. That’s what started to separate us. Troy was lucky. He got a job at the local Kentucky Fried Chicken. First they had him sweeping. Then he was cleaning tables. One day I knew he’d be working cash register, maybe do me a hook-up here and there.
I could never figure out why they picked Troy over me. Like we’re not cut from the same cloth. The chicken spot was the only big business within ten blocks in either direction of Dakota Street. Other than that, Mr. Jay’s was our corner grocery store. The Right Look was the beauty salon next door, and there was a small tavern next to that. Everything else was a hustle. Collecting soda cans and newspapers to cash in at the recycling plant. Shoveling snow in the winters. Raking leaves or sweeping sidewalks in the off seasons. I had it hard until I ventured to take a bus downtown. It seemed the more I soldiered into downtown Stamford, the more I caught wind of opportunities. I got turned down for dozens of jobs. But the one I did get, I kept.
Waldbaum’s took me in like a son. I was thirteen when they let me hustle, carrying groceries to cars and retrieving carts, making sure the parking lot was kept clean. But by the time my voice began to change and pubic hairs began to weed up around my skinny twig, the store manager gave me a job inside. From running between cashiers and packing brown shopping bags, I was then promoted to stock boy. I had my own uniform now. It wasn’t shit but a green apron; to me it was someone accepting Spencer Lewis as part of a team.
I began to make a name for myself at Waldbaum’s. All day long someone was calling “Spencer” over the store’s P.A. system. And like a jackrabbit—or jackass—I’d show up within the blink of an eye. No matter if it was to retrieve a price for an unmarked item, or if it was to replace the item a customer selected that was damaged, it was Spencer to the rescue. Whether or not it was a superior attitude, I can’t say. But I do know I had a heap of energy to work with.
It was after high school graduation that things became a little more serious than a hustle. A lot more critical than the few hundred dollars a week I was paid.
It was Troy’s words that caught me off guard. He said, “Well, Spencer, I guess it’s me on the south side and you uptown. I’ll hold it down in the fast food department while you keep it nutritious with Waldbaum’s.”
The way he said that shit—how I was supposed to maintain my job for, what, forever?—that was pushing it. If we weren’t drinking and celebrating my eighteenth birthday I’d have had a lot more to say. But the Bacardi had a heavy foot on my senses, and we were only talkin’ shit besides. I just let it go.
However, the weeks and months passed, as did any hope of me going to college. For me, college was just as unobtainable as the glass structures in Stamford. Tuition, fees, room, and board—blah, blah, blah. I heard enough horror stories of dreams-gone-foul to wanna take a shortcut. Somehow. A shortcut.
It looked like everybody else was getting shortcuts. How many big-name celebrities told the god’s-honest-truth about dropping out of school to pursue their dreams? How many basketball players got multimillion-dollar contracts as soon as they left high school? Sure, I wasn’t a baller or a rap star—not even close. But I figured since I had the almighty diploma, something many couldn’t claim, I might’ve had a better shot at the big time than others who didn’t have it. Maybe. So I stayed where I was.
I watched Jody, one of Dakota Street’s “it girls,” blossom as the years went by, and we even went to the school prom together.
What a waste of money, $500 for my tuxedo, a long limo, and a night at Tipton’s Dance Club, all for what? To hear her tell me, “Don’t expect anything tonight.” Go on; just pop a guy’s bubble! Couldn’t she even let me hold on to some hope through the engagement, instead of stomping out my fantasy before the night began?
Even before I handed my invitation to the ladies at the reception table I wanted to take Miss Thang home. Jody, the bitch.
However, as they always said, where one door closes, another one opens.
I never planned to go back to work the next day, expecting to be bangin’ Jody all night and until the cops came knockin’ at our motel door. But being as how I was sober and so full of unspent energy, I went to work anyway.
I happened to be rotating the cheese in the dairy department, pulling the nearly outdated cheeses up front so that they’d be selected before all else. It was the same with the milk, the juice, and the meats as well.
I noticed a yellow-boned cutie down the way, picking through loaves of bread. When one dropped and when she bent down to pick it up, an outrageous tear was born down the back of her skirt. She had one of those jobs that hugged her thighs enough to hide her behind. It was black with pink and blue flowers printed all over. She also had a soft white button-down sweater top that showed off her cheerleader’s body. Nobody else was around to hear the rip or to see how the woman’s ass was showing, but she was embarrassed just as if there were hordes of shoppers.
I hurried over to the woman’s aid. I took off my apron and hooked it around her waist before she even knew what was happening.
“I can’t go around like this,” she said after melting out of her stupor.
“I could call you a cab . . . uh . . . maybe you could wait in the office till they come.” She let out a frustrated growl, a sound a threatened cat might make. “Or . . . where do you stay at?”
“I’m at the Ramada.”
“The Ramada?” I couldn’t imagine why a girl—what was she, eighteen?—would be staying at the Ramada. Shouldn’t she be away at school or something? Maybe showing off her body at a dance rehearsal or the beach?
Maybe she read my mind. She said, “I’m here with my dad. He’s a CEO at First Insurance . . .”
I shook my head, saying no explanation was necessary—lying—and offered her a ride to the Ramada.
“If you wouldn’t mind,” she replied.
I ushered her through the back of the market and out to the employee parking area.
“Just a minute,” I told her after I seated her in the used Volvo I bought months earlier. It was nothing to be flashy about, but it did the job. “I gotta let my boss know. Be right back.”
Like a jackrabbit, I hurried in and informed the day manager. I got a grateful smile in return, and was back to the woman within record time.
“I’m Spencer,” I said, offering my handshake.
“Roxy,” she replied. “I . . .” She chuckled and spoke simultaneously. “I feel like a complete fool.”
“Don’t. Coulda happened to anybody,” I said, trying to console her.
On the way to the hotel, Roxy explained how her father had her there in Stamford for the weekend. He’d be working. She’d be shopping while he was working. However, they intended on spending Saturday and Sunday as father and daughter, an occasion that Roxy thought should be more often than not.
“So that’s how you do this? You stay in the hotel instead of with him?” I asked.
“A little agreement we have . . . to give each other space. But also . . . I don’t quite get along with his girlfriend.”
“Ah-ha!” I said, tryin’ to put some energy into our acquaintance. “So the truth comes out.”
Roxy smirked and directed me through the parking garage where she could slip through some glass doors into the hotel’s underground entrance.
“Thanks a lot for the lift. You’re a lifesaver.” Her eyes matched her smile. Roxy hopped out and leaned in the window. “What about the apron?”
“Oh, that. You can . . .” I was gonna tell her to toss it, knowing that it wasn’t a big deal. “Wanna bring it next time you shop?” I said, hoping for continuation. Roxy’s face sought an answer.
“Wanna come up?”
“You sure?” Her father came to mind.
“Room three-one-five,” she said and turned off for the entrance.
I didn’t know how to feel. In one way I felt like this was an opportunity. In another, I was nervous as shit. Spencer the virgin at eighteen.
I parked and made the short journey to the third floor, half expecting the apron to be wedged around the doorknob or otherwise out in the hallway. But there was nothing close to my imagination.
Roxy and I made small talk. She spoke on her life and commuting between divorced parents. I spoke on Stamford and how we had more than one movie theater, night club, and shopping mall. One thing led to another and we were making the most of a conveniently isolated situation. Roxy was lonely and impulsive, and I was inexperienced and still horny from my prom-night letdown. I still had the condom in my wallet with Jody’s name on it.
We submerged ourselves in foreplay. Me becoming familiar with a woman’s body for the first time, her surrendering to my progressions with her innocent sighs and whimpers. Jesus, I didn’t even know this girl’s last name and I was pushing inside of her like my life depended on it. Like it was my birthday or something. When it was over there was guilt and shame fighting the silence in that hotel room. Meanwhile, Roxy’s scratch marks on my back and a sperm-filled rubber were the only memories, outside of some incredible explosion, that I can recall about the day after the prom.
they said when it rains it pours, and when it did it was probably in relation to the summer months following my high school graduation.
I was bagging groceries, as I did my best, when I recognized a celebrity in the checkout line next to where I was working.
“Lemme switch with you, Stevie,” I said to the coworker at the edge of the neighboring checkout line.
“No prob, dude. What’s the hurry? Ain’t no cuties over here.”
“No biggie,” I said. “Just tryin’ to break up the monotony.”
“I feel ya’,” Stevie said, one of the coolest white boys I know.
I tried to figure out what TV show I’d seen the woman on, her Hollywood features just only hinting at age and her hair swept up in a motherly do. I didn’t want to be so obvious so I avoided any extreme eye contact. Two customers were already asking for autographs. Phyllis? Lynn? Felicia? Yes! Felicia! She’s that woman from—. My thoughts were interrupted. I had already packed up two of the woman’s packages when she said, “Pardon me? Do you think you could help me carry the groceries to my car?” I was startled by the mere command of her voice. Her diction so precise and articulate.
“Oh, ah, sure. N-no problem,” I replied, wanting to kick myself for being so nervous.
We have those state-of-the-art shopping carts at Waldbaum’s and they couldn’t get past the iron stations, poles really, that demarked the walkway out in front of the store from the parking lot. If not for those barriers, carriages would be all over the lot. As it was, some customers got creative and lifted shopping carts over the poles just for convenience. I never got that; how they’d bust their ass to labor the cart over the barriers for the wee bit of comfort . . . that cart-to-car ease. Some people just can’t help being lazy. When I got outside the woman had me wait until she pulled the car up to the storefront. I couldn’t help deciding whether to admire her good looks in that sundress or to think she was old enough to be my mother. I shook off the thoughts once the green Jaguar crawled to a stop at the curb. I immediately figured her to be caked-up from all of her years in entertainment. I thought of her husband as a lucky stiff.
“I’ve seen you around here before,” she said as I loaded the groceries in her trunk. “They keep you mighty busy.”
“Yes, ma’am, they do. It’s been almost five years now.” I found myself confiding in her as I would an aunt or a friend of my mother’s.
“So what’s next?” All manner of perfect diction thickening her voice.
“Next?” I asked, shutting the hood of the trunk.
“Surely you don’t plan on working here for the rest of your life.”
“Whoa! You sure we haven’t spoken before? My brother and I were just . . . oh never mind. No . . . actually, I’m not sure yet where I wanna go or what I wanna do, but—you’re right—I don’t want to be here forever.” She listened to me and sized me up, too.
“You think you could give me a call?” she asked as I did the gentlemanly bit, closing her in the car. “I could use . . . may I rephrase that? I believe you could prove to be a valuable contribution to my . . . to my routine.”
“I guess I could call. Sure, that’s not a big deal.”
She jotted down her name and phone number on the inside of a matchbook. It was only in that idle moment that I realized she smoked. I peeped a cigarette butt in the well of an ashtray.
“Mrs. Stern,” I read out loud. “Sure. I’ll give you a call.”
“You wouldn’t lie to a lady, would you?”
“I wouldn’t lie to myself, Mrs. Stern.”
“Thank you. And, uh . . . I’ll be sure to make it worth your while.”
She put on some tinted glasses as a pro, breezing away from Waldbaum’s like some kind of pipe dream. The way the woman winked at me was—how can I explain it?—promising.
Copyright © 2007 by Relentless Aaron. All rights reserved.