A loud ring shatters my sleep, growing louder with each cycle like a police car racing up the street. I stagger to the living room, kicking a beer can out of my way. I snatch the telephone and hear a woman cry, bubbling over with short breaths between sobs, drowning her words.
New York Bell installed the phone yesterday at the insistence of Sherman, my boss at the dairy. I expect a different call waking me up. Julie my mentor in accounting warned me that if I screw up my punch card input I might get a call from the vampire, the computer operator who runs the accounting jobs overnight.
My keypunch skills are suspect, but not enough to make a vampire cry. I wait for the sobs to shorten, the breaths deepen. “Curt here.”
“I’m so sorry,” the woman says hoarsely before rising in another crescendo.
I try to identify her voice.
“Gloria,” she spurts out before I ask. “Bill’s wife.”
It takes me a few seconds to match the name with Sherman. No one calls him Bill at work but I remember her calling him Bill when he invited me home to dinner last week to celebrate my new assignment.
“I’m so sorry to call you. Maybe he’ll listen to you.” She swallows back her tears. “He thinks a lot of you.”
“What’s wrong?” I ask, but I know the answer. Sherman’s affair with Julie has been the headline of dairy gossip for weeks. This morning in the break room my friend Renee leaned across the steel table, her white apron smeared with ice cream, smelling like a carton of Neapolitan, whispering that Sherman and Julie were spied holding hands at K-Mart.
“He didn’t come home tonight.” Gloria’s sniffles leak between words.
The sheer bulk of the passion between my boss and Julie has been an easy source of jokes, like my telling Renee this morning that their combined quarter ton was heavier than the daily run of ice cream, our laughter now hollow echoes. “I don’t know where he is.”
“Everyone knows where he is,” Gloria counters, her tone turning to anger. “You remember Marshall?”
A curly towhead, Sherman’s son took a liking to me, his new toy.
“He waited by the door all night with his tomato basket, waiting for his daddy to take him outside to pick his tomatoes.”
“He’s proud of his tomatoes.”
“I’m so sorry I called you.” She resumes crying. “Why would he want to break up our marriage and leave his two kids?”
I shake my head, unsure what to say.
“I decided to take the kids back to Washington.”
I feel the weight of the affair pulling me down.
“Will you talk to him and remind him we love him? Marshall and Sheila love him.” She takes a deep breath. “I love him more than anything.”
“Gloria, I feel horrible. But I don’t see how I can change anything.”
“He respects you. He would listen to you.” She takes a deep breath. “He would respect you for talking to him.”
No, he might fire me for good. My employment is fragile. Less than two months after he fired me for drinking, he hired me back and then he gave me a chance to learn computer skills by recording shipments after my shift, provided I stay out of trouble.
Gloria treats my silence as a maybe. “Please, Curt. I trust you.”
She hardly knows me. I pull the receiver away from my head, feeling the blood rush back to my ear. I hold it sideways in front of my face like the jaw of a trap before turning it over to my other ear and whispering, “Okay, but I can’t promise anything.”
“Just you talking to him. Thank you.”
When I drop the phone in its cradle, I know I should go back to bed, but I head to the kitchen. The wall clock reads 12:35. I slide a can of Genesee out of the refrigerator and pop the top. I throw back a long swallow and thump the door closed.
The phone rings again. Why would Gloria call me back? Maybe I can keep it short.
“Did I wake you up?” asks another female voice. I hear the whir of machinery and air-conditioning.
“I’m already awake.”
“Me, too. It’s Angie the computer operator.”
“Hi Angie,” I say uncertainly. This is the call Julie warned me about.
“Your input job failed, but I fixed it. I want to show you what I did.”
“I followed the manual.”
“We all make mistakes. I get in around six.”
“I start at seven.”
“Six p. m.” She says emphatically.
“Sure, anything for the dairy.”
“What a trooper,” she says with feigned enthusiasm. “Time to run the back up!”
Hanging up the phone, I chug my beer and head back to bed. I have a big day tomorrow. First I tell my boss to stop boning Julie, and then I go down to the morgue and meet the vampire.
We’re behind schedule the next morning when Sherman and I watch a truck pull away from the loading dock and another back in. I jump off my forklift to stretch my legs. An Army Ranger during the Vietnam War, his weight has doubled since he plied the jungle, but he seldom talks about those days.
“Teamsters,” he grimaces. “If Reagan wants to break a union, he should break the Teamsters.”
“He could try.” The drivers took their normal break even though the shipments were ready to load. We’ll be working late.
Sherman can tell I have something more to say. He furrows his brow.
“It’s really none of my business…” I begin.
“You’re right. None of your business.” He drawls in a low gravelly tone just louder than a whisper. When he’s angry his face glows deep red, almost purple. He’s not that angry yet but a red bruise blossoms on his cheek.
I shrug my shoulders.
He frowns. “Gloria asked you to talk to me, right? Sorry she dragged you into it.”
I don’t say anything.
Sherman lays his big hand on my shoulder and says, “I dug the tunnel and I have to dig my way out.”
I dip my shoulder and slide away, nodding my head as I climb back onto my forklift.
By the time the last truck belches its cloud of exhaust and pulls away, my legs are numb and my butt aches from my long day of sitting in the forklift cockpit. I have just enough time for a fifty cent cup of machine coffee and a Snickers bar before heading down to the air-conditioned computer room known as the morgue.
As I push through the air-locked door, I see the back of a small woman sitting at a terminal on a wooden table lined with a keypunch machine, a card sorter, a tray of cards and an overflowing ash tray, all littered with cardboard punch chads. Next to the table rises a blue cabinet with white block letters identifying the PDP-11 main frame.
As I step up to the raised floor, Angie leans forward and her worn black jeans tighten around her cheeks, pushed up by the cushion of her stool. She spins to face me, resting her elbows on her knees, and she eyes me with a tilt of her head. I try not to stare at the cleavage framed by her wide necked black tee shirt, but she catches my glance. She grins and looks away as she sits up straight.
“You must be Curt,” she says in an official tone as she purses her blackened lips. “Your moustache is famous.”
Feeling suddenly warm despite the cold air, I take her extended hand for a quick shake before she pulls it away.
“And you’re Angie.”
“Of course I am.”
She pats the stool next to her. I roll it away from the table and sit down.
“Your job failed to run last night.” She points at her monitor. “You see this percent sign?”
I lean toward the screen and make out the white symbol on the black screen above the pulsing input marker. I follow her finger, breathing her earthy perfume. She spins toward me to make sure I’m listening and her long black hair brushes my shoulders.
She waves her hand, black fingernail polish gleaming in the diffused light. “You need a card with a percent sign just after the header card.”
“I didn’t see that in the manual.”
“Not there. We got an update this week and the idiot who wrote the program added an enhancement,” she sneers.
I shake my head as she sighs and reaches for her pack of cigarettes. “Took me awhile to figure it out.”
Sliding her ashtray closer, I push my stool back to give her room to light her Newport. She blows out a cloud of menthol smoke, and says, “I could hack the executable, but it’s easier to fix the inputs until they send us an update.”
She leans back as a wisp of smoke rises toward the ceiling vent. “Maybe I could run the backup,” she muses. “Nah.”
“Percent card, it is,” I reply.
“Until I tell you different.” She points at my face with her cigarette. “Are you on mail and messaging?”
“I just got a terminal.”
She stares at me and raises her eyebrows.
The trucks are late again the next morning. After missing lunch and working through the afternoon shift, I bring the manifest copies upstairs to enter the data on punch cards when one of the two keypunch machines frees up. While I wait I sit down at my terminal and log into the system and mail, hoping to exercise the new commands I learned from the PDP manual last night. I see the reassuring entries from the last run:
sys: ShipJob running
sys: ShipJob finished
In a moment another message appears:
I’m just about to type a response when I hear the click-flap of Julie’s high heels behind me. Renee says Julie has worn high heels so much she can’t wear any other shoes. Several years older than me, Julie is a large woman about my height in her heels and conspicuously voluptuous. She typically wears a tight polyester blouse and tight slacks, the elastic band of her panties gradually sliding down to divide the top and bottom of her full butt as she walks with a rhythm of sways and jiggles. She winks as I face her.
“I hear you were summoned by the vampire,” she whispers. holding up her hands and extending her long red fingernails like claws.
“My job failed.”
“I answered my subpoena earlier.” She throws back her shoulders and shakes, recalling the frigid memory of the computer room, straining the buttons on her blouse. She glances toward the two older women typing at the keypunch machines. “Now we all know about the percent sign.”
Julie taught me how to use the keypunch machine and the card sorter even though she hates them. The smartest person at Crowley’s, she’s the queen of the order books and ledgers, just as Angie’s the queen of the morgue. Old Crowley never makes a financial decision without asking Julie’s advice. She spins sums like a calculator, adding up columns of numbers in her head faster than anyone can type them. She says the punch cards slow her down.
“She wants me to learn mail.” I reply.
“So she doesn’t have to pick up a phone and call you.” Julie shakes her head. “You know she came here with Sherman. They were a package deal along with the PDP-11 because Crowley wants to automate the dairy.”
“Great for me.” Julie knows I want to catch the computer wave.
“We will be much more efficient when we have all our production data on the computer,” she says in a hollow tone, mimicking Crowley and nodding like a bobblehead.
Her eyes suddenly dim. She stares at me and whispers, “Someone said Sherman looked angry yesterday when you talked to him on the dock.”
“The drivers took a break when he wanted to load the trucks.” I leave out the detail she’s fishing for.
“Teamsters,” she hisses, gazing into my eyes. She spins on her pointed heels and sways back to her desk where she pulls a thick order book from her shelf and drops it on the steel surface with a loud thud.
Turning back to my terminal I type:
vmpire: can you give me a ride tomorrow? my car’s going to the shop
vmpire: working first shift
vmpire: go ahead, kill me
The next morning when I pick up Angie she’s dressed in her black uniform, but I notice the deep red lipstick as soon as she climbs in.
She catches my double take and smiles. “Gotta keep everyone off balance. My plan for world domination.”
“I’d like to hear more about your plan,” I laugh. The color looks good on her, a contrast to her usual pallor.
On my way to the breakroom in the afternoon, I swing downstairs and drop my bundle of punch cards in the mailbox by the door of the morgue. I haven’t seen Julie or Sherman all day.
“Maybe they have a date,” Renee whispers over the steam of our Styrofoam cups.
“An extra-large sale at K-Mart?”
Renee brushes a cookie crumb off her white apron. “Word is that something’s wrong.” She raises her eyebrows. “Maybe they’re trying to patch it up.”
I drain my coffee, smirking from the bitter metallic taste but the coffee gets me through the afternoon.
When I pull up to Angie’s apartment to drop her off, she surprises me by asking me in.
Sweeping ahead of me she unlocks the door and lights a square black candle on a dark-stained coffee table. A thick joint rests on a clear glass ashtray.
“Do you like lasagna?” she asks, shaking out the wooden match. “I bet you didn’t know I was Italian.”
“Pasta’s the only thing I can cook. Never attempted lasagna.”
She stares at me with the stoic expression she uses when explaining the computer system. “You can stay?”
“My beer will go flat at Mother’s.”
She shivers and cracks a smile. “I can’t believe you go to that dive.” She switches on her stereo, raising a stack of records to the top of the spindle. After a click and a flop, The Doors “Strange Days” erupts from two floor speakers.
She retrieves the glass ashtray and leads me into the kitchen.
I forget about my lonely draft and everything else as the warm scent of oregano and garlic fill my senses. After dinner Angie rolls another number on a Black Sabbath album cover, her head bobbing to the beat. Her dark hair waves in the gentle drift of the ceiling fan, gaining body in the candlelight, as if she might levitate at any moment. She sits with her legs crossed and holds up the joint like a talisman.
The deep rhythm from the stereo vibrates up through my soles. I lean my chin on my hand as the flame of her farmer match frames her face.
“Why don’t you have a girlfriend?” She exhales and passes the joint, our touch lingering for an extra second.
“My girlfriend’s waiting in a glass at Mother’s.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“Long story.” I take a deep hit.
“I’ve heard the Crowley version.” She tilts her head and hooks a strand of hair over her ear. “I want to hear your story.”
Leaning toward her, I touch her free hand and she drops the smoldering weed in the ashtray. Her dark red lipstick tastes oddly sweet as we kiss. She pulls away and runs her tongue over my moustache. We stand and embrace, kneading our flesh as we fall toward the bedroom.
The scent of our eager sex fills the air like dew, damp on the black sheets when we finally roll apart. I lie back and stare at the images flickering on her ceiling as Angie fires up a long wooden match over the candle. She inhales her Newport and squirms back onto her pillow.
“I don’t want a boyfriend.”
I laugh. I recall how Debby staggered back to her boyfriend after our drunken one week romance and Renee never broke the yoyo string tied to her boyfriend Anton.
Angie elbows me in the ribs. “I’m serious.”
“You’re safe with me.”
She laughs. “Maybe I should say I’m not serious.”
I turn to face her. “You’re serious about the PDP-11.”
“Too cold, even for me.” She leers.
“But you came to Crowley’s with the computer.” I raise my eyebrows, accusing her of an illicit affair with the blue machine.
“Sherman brought the relic from Universal Instruments and he made me queen of the night shift.” She looks up at the ceiling tiles. “When I finish the MRP project we’ll only be ten years behind the times. We should have a VAX station and PCs.”
“I’m one of the relics.”
“You’re easy. Julie freaks out whenever I tell her anything. Wish Sherman would calm her down.” She shakes her head and looks into my eyes. “Glad I don’t work with them as much as you do.”
I shrug as she snubs out her cigarette and secures the roach in a brass clip, its leather lace strung with black beads. She lights the roach over the ashtray and pulls it back for a hit.
“Let me tell you something about Sherman.” She leans across me, her breasts brushing my chest, and hands me the clip. “He always goes back to his wife.”
The smoke curls away as the roach burns out. She lifts it from my fingers and drops it in the ashtray. The black sheet slides down her shoulder, revealing the point of her nipple, and I feel my pulse quicken. Angie tucks the sheet under her chin and sits up. She shakes her head and smooths her hair behind her ears. She checks her alarm clock and says in a serious tone, “We need to get to work.”
I sit up, startled. “I’m in no shape to drive.”
Angie laughs and pushes me back down. “I mean it’s time to run the backup.”
The next morning, I meet Renee for our morning break. Just as we sit down to enjoy our Styrofoam cups of machine brewed coffee, aluminum chairs scraping on the worn linoleum, Julie rushes in crying. She evades our eyes and slides two quarters into the shiny brown coffee machine. Her hands shake as she lights a cigarette and sits at the other end of the breakroom.
“I didn’t know she smokes,” Renee whispers.
I stare into my cup as Renee goes to the refrigerator for a carton of milk, one of our company benefits.
“When can I drive your Chevelle?” I ask as she slides back into her chair. I study her clear blue eyes.
“When Anton dies.” Renee forces a laugh. “He’d kill me otherwise.”
Her boyfriend and I are not the best of friends. Hearing me, Julie stands and flashes a cold stare before spinning on her high heels and clomping out the door, her panty line riding lower than usual.
“Maybe we should just fire up the Chevelle and go.”
Renee shakes her head, swinging her blonde hair. “It’s not your fault.”
“She thinks so.”
“Sherman told her you had nothing to do with it.”
The hot coffee burns my tongue. I blow into the Styrofoam cup.
“Don’t worry about her,” Renee whispers, leaning toward me. “Her husband and kids want her back.”
I take a deep breath, the air searing my burned mouth. Today is payday and the bartender will be lining up my first pitcher and a fresh glass at Mother’s. Always good to have a backup.
Terry’s collection of poetry, The Poet’s Garage, was published by Unsolicited Press in May 2020. His poems and stories have recently appeared in Typishly, The Mantle,Valparaiso Poetry Review, Front Porch Review, Jersey Devil Press, The Lake and other publications. Lucky Ride(Unsolicited Press), an irreverent Vietnam-era road novel, is set to release in 2021. His website is https://terrytierney.com.