I was 23, but you would never have known it. That's a little joke, see, because I was 34 years old at the time and looked every blessed day of it. Why, if I had asked you to guess my age, I would have wagered serious green you would have spit out a figure higher than 34. Like 36, or maybe 38. But that's neither here nor there.
The fact is, I was 23—as in Inspected by 23. If you had ever bought a pair of Walkerized Knock-A-Round casual slacks or Walkerized Deb-N-Air dress slacks, you would know exactly what I'm walking about. Every pair of pants with the T.O. Walker Company label inside the patented Give-N-Take waistband had been thoroughly checked for quality and craftsmanship. And there was a little slip of paper in the right front pocket of each and every pair to prove it. It wasn't much bigger that what you'd find inside a fortune cookie, but let me tell you, if it had my number on it, you could do the rumba all night in those trousers without blowing an inseam. I guaranteed it, and so did my boss, Mr. T.O. Walker. He still does, as far as I know.
Quite a man, Mr. W. His patented Walkerization process—nothing less than a miracle, and I'm not one to use the term loosely. My hat is off to him for coming up with a fabric that only needed a little touch-up with a damp sponge to keep it looking fresh as a baby's dimples. Amazing stuff. And to think he worked it all out on the back of a menu in the spring of '46.
I still believe that folks today have a genuine need for products that save time and labor. For better or worse, cutting corners is the name of the game. And that's where my troubles began.
It started when Number 9 decided to stretch his morning coffee break a good eight minutes longer than the authorized fifteen. Did it three days in a row, until someone fingered him.
Somehow he got it into his head that I was the one who had ratted him out. Just because I wouldn't pitch pennies with him in the smokers' lounge or swap off-color jokes with the rest of his cronies on the day shift. 9 was always after me to take in a lunchtime show with him at the Kupkake Klub up there on Lomax Street. And, of course, I always said no. Thanks anyway. It wasn't that I was as dull as a butter knife. I've always considered myself a stand-up guy and a gentleman to boot. I enjoy a good laugh as much as the next fellow. Once, I even offered 9 half of my peanut butter-and-pickle sandwich and invited him to join me at the midget car races at Hinchcliff Stadium. But he would have nothing to do with me after the coffee break business.
He would just repeat everything I said in a sing-song puppet voice, loud enough for the whole shift to hear. Then he would shake his head and laugh through his nose. Sometimes he would pinch me on the cheek like an old aunt or rub his knuckles real hard on top of my head or flick one of those big fingernails of his against my earlobe.
I had a feeling—a bad feeling—that one day old Number 9 was going to take his shenanigans a little too far. I didn't know what I was going to do when that happened. Who could tell? You never knew who might do something—something serious—some day.
Things changed when a new gal was hired in Quality Control. Got a little more interesting. There was something in the air, and I don't mean Walkerene fibers either. Now I'm not saying that inspecting belt loop stitching on 439 pairs of spearmint green Knock-A-Round slacks is everybody's idea of a pig roast, but having a member of the fairer sex around sure didn't hurt things any. The shift chief assigned her the number 16, but after watching those rosy fingers dance around an inseam, she was sweet 16 in my book.
It was a couple of days later that Number 5 called in sick. At least that was the story she gave the chief. If it wasn't one thing it was another with that gal. Plantar's warts, bone spurs, hammer toes. You know the kind: guzzling Pepto-Bismol for every little burp, all sneezes at the sight of a cat.
For a while, the only sound on the production line was the snap and rustle of Napoleon blue Deb-N-Air slacks being inspected. Then the Chief sat 16 down, right there next to me in 5's slot. That's when things got real quiet. I brushed up against her arms in the act of folding my 38th pair of D-B-N's (I was running ahead of my quota) and begged her pardon without looking her in the baby blues. That would have been too much, too soon. Another man might have been all over her like a fruit fly, but not me. No, sir.
16—sweet 16—worked like a bird in springtime, her pretty hands all aflutter, her elbows as flushed as a robin's breast. I heard her hum part of the theme from Green Acres and decided to chime in, taking up the harmony. Well, that ended that. As I recall, she moved her stool a foot or two away from me.
When the noon whistle screeched, I’d gone through 64 pairs of Deb-N-Airs and rejected seven of them: four because of ill-matched coloration, two for sloppy stitching in the pocket area, and one on account of a fused zipper. Just chew on the consequences of a defect like that, and you won’t be so quick to drop those paper inspection slips all over like they were movie ticket stubs.
At lunch, I took my usual seat in the canteen: back to the wall, third table down. For some reason, that table always got more than its share of condiments, mustard in particular. You’ll see how that figures shortly. I opened my paper sack, rolled the top down for easier access and dug inside for my lunch: Libby’s Vienna sausages, one can; pork rinds, one bag; and Scooter Pies, two.
Number 9 was cutting up at the back table with some of his buddies. There was 12, his tongue lolling around the corner of his mouth while he unscrewed the tops of all the salt and pepper shakers. There was 37, scratching his armpit and trying to talk 22 out of his turkey croquettes. There was 40, tooling a skull design on his motorcycle boots with a fork. 9 was sitting backwards on his chair while he flicked peas at the chief’s bald pate, four tables away.
I noticed that 9 stopped his nonsense and pulled out of his slouch when 16 came through the line. She was wearing a green-and-yellow dress that didn’t leave much room to spare.
The outfit wasn’t lost on 9. He whistled shamelessly, singing: “Li’l Queen Bee, makin’ honey for the hive, Li’l Queen Bee, won’t you be mine?”
16 just nudged her tray past the steam tables, ignoring him.
I should have said something right then, but I didn’t. I just kept eating those Vienna sausages straight from the can, taking care to paint each one first with a dollop of mustard.
It so happened that the only vacant seats in the canteen were at my table. Now, I usually prefer to eat alone, believing it to have a beneficial effect on the digestion, but I was willing to make an exception for the T.O. Walker Company’s prettiest employee. In fact, I was delighted to have her join me and told her so when she tottered up to the table.
“Why aren’t you nice,” she said. Then she gave me a smile, a real 100-watt job, all dimples and lipstick.
“It’s not often that a fellow can dine with such a vision of feminine grace,” I said. Those were my words exactly: vision of feminine grace.
I helped her with her chair, then sat down myself. Having gone through the Vienna sausages and pork rinds, I held off on dessert, giving 16 a chance to catch up.
She held her corn dog with her pinkie extended and ate with quick bites that bared her teeth. By the time she got to her creamed spinach, I was smitten.
I offered her my extra Scooter Pie. “Please,” I said.
“I couldn’t,” she said.
“I’d be honored.”
“I wouldn’t be asking, if I saw a chocolate eclair or a tub of rice pudding on your tray.”
“I won’t have you taking advantage of my trusting nature!” she shrilled suddenly. “I’m not the kind to stand for it!”
You may well be asking why I was so all-fired bent on having the little lady wolf down a Scooter Pie, and a banana one at that. Well, I’ll tell you: I figured that if I could just get the girl to accept a little treat, getting on her social calendar would be a cinch.
It just goes to show how wrong you can be in matters of the heart. 16 wouldn’t bite—wouldn’t so much as push the thing away—and before I even had a chance to apologize, she was gone, her sensible work shoes smacking the linoleum.
“You’ve got a sickness, trying to make a girl eat more than she should!” she said on her way to the door. “There’s a word for people like you!” She never said what it was.
Not that it mattered. I walked back to the production line a little taller after that. Shoot, we’d just had our first spat.
That Friday night, I was on the State Street express bus, headed straight for Kransky Auditorium. They had quite a program lined up as I recall: Flatcar Terry Gallagher was paired with The Can Opener against Kaiser Kretchmer and Awful Olaf for the main event. A tag-team deal, guaranteed to pack them in.
There I was, sliding around in my hard plastic seat as we took the corners, when I saw her. Her with him. Them. They were standing outside Schimmel’s, and 9 was sizing up 16 while she was reading the menu in the window, her pretty head probably thinking about the Pigs-in-a-blanket platter or a peanut butter sundae with extra jimmies. I knew what he was probably thinking. I could imagine, anyway. Me? I was thinking 16 + 9 = T. T for trouble. And I’m a guy who failed algebra.
I got off at Petunia Street and tucked my shirt in, working it clockwise around the Give-N-Take waistband of my trousers. I had an experimental pair on that night. It was in a yellow fabric that never quite took off with the public. Mr. Walker had picked out the colors himself for a new line of men’s travel wear. Called it the Trav-L Collection. No, it was the Trav-L Kollection. He had it trademarked and everything. Each color was named for a different city, as in Moscow Red and Peking Yellow. Why that line didn’t take off like a Mercury Rocket, I’ll never understand. Of course, it might have been all those zippered map pockets and passport pouches that Mr. W. insisted on putting all over them.
I stood outside Schimmel’s window for a moment, checking both the specials du jour and the part in my hair before going inside. I may have whistled a tune or two: a snatch of To Sir With Love or a bit of the theme from Gunsmoke. There was an empty stool at the counter across from the refrigerated pie case, but I moved on and took a seat with plenty of mirror in front of me. I had to keep my eye on things, and I didn’t want to have my back exposed. There was no telling what 9 might do when cornered.
The waitress was fast enough with the menu, but she didn’t engage in the usual banter about the sorry state of the railroad depot or the bumper car fatality they’d had out at McClosky Park that summer. She had to have been new, just slapping the menu down on the counter like that. She didn’t even mention the specials du jour, which I already knew to be olive loaf on white in the sandwich category and Yankee pot roast in the dinners. There was also a soup: tomato-lima bean with complimentary Saltines. I don’t recall the pies.
I flagged down the waitress, calling her Miss, instead of Danielle, like it said on her name-tag. I wanted her to know that we would never have anything more than a business relationship, if she didn’t change her tune. I don’t think I was being unreasonable.
Danielle brought my fruit cup (one shrivelled grape was lurking under a clump of beige banana slices) and my glass of buttermilk (there were two straws with a wooden coffee stirrer as big as a tongue depressor). But I couldn’t enjoy any of it with all that was going on at the corner table.
9 had just finished stuffing 16 with shrimp and was now plying her with a blue drink in a tall glass. Or was it a tall drink in a blue glass? I tried to get a better view of the thing, swiveling around on my stool for a clear view of it in the mirror. Blue or not, it wasn’t any Shirley Temple. What’s more, the drink had a toy parasol jutting out of it. I didn’t like that. It meant 9 was hiding something.
I pushed the uneaten grape around on the bottom of the fruit cup dish and gave myself a little jolt when I looked at myself in the mirror. I was smiling, but it wasn’t me. It was my face, all right, but it looked like the face of some distant third cousin. Someone I had only met once or twice.
That’s when I began the long, slow walk toward the cozy corner table. I was in no hurry, having both time and the element of surprise on my side. I could picture the look on 9’s moon face when he finally realized what was up. His eyeballs would bulge like walnuts. At that point, I was going to shake my head in disgust or wind my watch or some such thing. I’d fiddle with the old Bulova and yawn, showing plenty of teeth. Like a lion. King of the Jungle. Whatever I did, I was going to let 9 know that I meant business. That’s right—beeswax.
The walk to the corner table wasn’t nearly as long as I’d figured. I’d been fooled by the mirrors. Probably wasn’t the first, either.
Of course, 9 didn’t see me even when I was right on top of him. He was too busy showing off, all caught up in trying to balance a salt shaker on its edge to realize that I wasn’t some busboy who’d come running with breadsticks or a pitcher of ice water.
16 recognized me right off, though. She blinked and said, “Look who’s here.” That’s all. Not Howdy! or Won’t you join us? or What a nice surprise. Not even a smile from those jujube lips of hers. But I don’t blame her for sounding like a 45 played at 33 RPM—I blame 9 and the blue brew he’d been foisting on her. The girl looked as doped as a racehorse.
I jingled the change in my pockets and gave 9 my best ear-to-ear, holding it until he got a good look at me. I believe I could have smiled all night like that, knowing I’d caught him with his paw in the pie basket.
9’s eyes weren’t exactly like walnuts—more like those little round jobs you sometimes run across. Filberts.
“What do you want?” he said.
“Just ante up and take your leave,” I said. “And make sure to shell out enough for the tip.” It all sounded pretty good, and I hadn’t even rehearsed.
He turned to 16 and said, “Get a load of Tex here.”
I don’t know if he said that because of my zippered ankle boots or because I had my hands at my side, ready to go for my nail clippers if he pulled any funny stuff. Either way, I took it as a compliment, having always had an abiding respect for anyone from the Lone Star State and their two-fisted ways.
9 shook out more salt and went back to his balancing trick. 16 just looked at both of us and blinked, cute as a kewpie doll.
9 looked up from the pile of salt and said, “Better run along, sport. There must be some taffy-pull or a model railroad club meeting you can get lost at.”
He pulled a quarter from his pocket and flipped it at my feet. “There, get yourself a bubble gum seegar down the street and don’t stub your toe on the way out.”
“I’m taking the lady home,” I said. No, I said, “I’m escorting the lady home.”
9 laughed at that. He was all huck, huck, huck and har, har, har. Like a cartoon dog.
“I don’t see anything funny,” I said.
9 went hyuh, hyuh, hyuh.
“I’m a fair man,” I said. “So I’ll give you ten seconds to make good on the tip and clear out.” By then he was down to nine seconds.
9 wiped his eyes and shook his head. The cigarette behind his ear never moved. 16 looked about the same as she had a moment before, except that her mouth was open now.
“Can’t hardly stand it,” 9 said. Then he was cracking up again, slapping his knee. Going sneck, sneck, sneck through his nose.
“Time’s up,” I said. “We’ve all had enough of your coarse jokes and flimflam. And you can clean up that mess before you trot off.”
“Say, what do you know about salt?” 9 asked, his tone of voice changing suddenly.
“I believe it comes from the ground.”
“Anybody knows that, champ. Tell me something I don’t know. Something original.”
“Well, an antelope will dig out a salt lick with its hooves if it has to.” I had seen this in a library book once, and told him so.
“Let me tell you something, Mr. Dewey Decimal System. They’re all different.”
“Salt crystals. Every one’s different. Just like snowflakes that way.”
“You expect me to believe that?”
“Take a look then.”
So I did. 9 waited until I’d gone in real close before blowing that salt in my face like he was going at a birthday cake after making a million dollar wish. If you’ve ever been caught in a full-blown Okie twister, you’ll get the idea. Smarted like a son-of-a-gun. But the worst of it was watching through weepy eyes while 9 paid the tab, one of his hands on 16 and the other in the mint bowl.
I had always tried to be a patient man. Even what they call a long-suffering man. But a fellow can only put up with having his nose tweaked for so long before he starts thinking about things. I’m talking about ideas of an unnatural sort. Irregular notions. Like how someone—no one in particular, mind you—how this someone might go about melting automotive sheet metal using only household materials. Or how someone—just any old person—might fill someone else’s locker with hot road tar. Or whether someone else entirely—some guy off the street, say—whether this party would be able to transfer something—a water moccasin, for example—from a cardboard box in his possession to a trailer home owned by another party, without that party knowing.
When I wasn’t thinking, I was pondering That Night At Schimmel’s. I began to see it as a movie of the week, with Mr. Lee Majors as me and Ernest Borgnine as 9. 16 had to play herself, of course; no one else could capture the way she could look at you out of the corner of her eye. That little dewdrop still rang my bell.
Somewhere along in there, the chief put me on the freak shift. You know, the old midnight-to-dawn stretch. He said it might be just the thing to blow the stink off me. I never did catch his meaning, but I didn’t press him on it. The chief had always been fair with me, and I knew there was plenty on his mind at the time. There was some talk of his wife running off with a radio personality by the name of X.Y. Zipp. Now, how could I refuse a man with a suitcase full of worry like that?
Truth be told, I didn’t mind the monster shift. I’d take the 11:41 bus—that’s P.M.—to the factory and spend those seesawing 27 minutes thinking of all the other folks who labored in darkness: coal miners, night watchmen, mushroom growers. All honorable, specialized trades.
After my shift, I’d hop the 8:09—make that A.M.—back to my studio efficiency at the Monte Cristo Towers and watch talk shows back to back, while I ate frozen waffles spread with cream cheese. At other times, I’d eat pickled onions and cocktail franks, spearing them with toothpicks while I read the small-space ads in Field & Stream.
I must confess to having had some trouble getting enough shut-eye during those first few weeks, but a sleep mask and a set of rubber ear plugs soon fixed that.
It was these small successes that helped me to form the belief that there was an answer—a simple solution—to any and every problem; it was all just a matter of trusting your heart.
Which brings me to one particular night on the freak shift. I had been checking the pocket stitching on the new Eur-O-Pean line, as I recall. It was all slippery-looking stuff, tailored with what Mr. Walker called that Continental flair. I didn’t care for it myself.
As usual, I was way ahead of my co-workers. So I got to thinking. You know—thinking. One quick peek down the line at 9 running his paws all over those pants like a circus poodle was all it took to set things straight in my mind. Some might say it was a chance occurrence—9 being on the Frankenstein stretch that night—but I’m not one of them. The workings of a Higher Power, that’s what it was.
I was feeling mighty chipper by the time the whistle blew for the 3 A.M. break. I had a plan and fifteen minutes—all the time in the world, as far as I was concerned. I also had a hunter’s moon.
Most of the other boys—47, 8, 22, 10—were horsing around in the lounge, playing gin rummy for bottle caps or buying combs and orange peanut butter crackers from the machines with slug coins, so I was out the door and into the parking lot before anyone could catch on. Not that there was anything to catch on to. I was just taking a little night air, right? Why, sure. You know me.
According to my Bulova, I had twelve whole minutes before the night chief yanked the frayed cord by the clock outside the office. A man could do plenty in twelve minutes—get married, cross state lines, pull a trigger, say the Lord’s Prayer about 26 times.
I had something else in mind. Something better, to my way of thinking. Thinking—there I go again.
The parking lot was as bright as a showroom floor with that big hubcap moon rolling up. Perfect for a little tire kicking. 9’s Buick wasn’t in his usual spot at the far end of the lot. No, he had parked that barge of his right in Mr. Walker’s specially reserved space. It was just like him. Some said that boy had nerves like Houdini, but I wasn’t one of them. I had a few tricks of my own.
My plan sort of shook itself into place while I stood there examining the lines of that General Motors beast by the light of the silvery moon. A light rain was falling, whispering almost.
Windshield wipers, it said. I looked the parking lot up and down, but I was alone.
Remove them, said the rain. What could I do but oblige?
I had only eight minutes left and the rain still had plenty to say. Plug tailpipe with three rocks and a Zagnut Bar wrapper. Prune sideview mirror. Engrave “Official Pace Car of the Daytona 500” across the trunk with a beer can pull-tab. Trim radio antenna. I’d always been a good listener.
By the time I marched past the sign that said T.O. Walker Company—Fashion’s Future Since 1938, I had three minutes left, one Buick hood ornament in my pocket, and a song on my lips. My Favorite Things, I think it was.
You can imagine the look of surprise on 16’s face when she opened the little box I’d wrapped so nicely and put on her stool so quietly while she was in the ladies’ room during the break the following night. She held the hood ornament close to the buzzing fluorescent work lamp, dangling it from the loop of shipping twine I’d so thoughtfully added.
You can also imagine me opening the following letter:
TO: Quality Control Inspector #23
FROM: The Chairman and Chief Executive Officer
RE: Termination of Employment
I’ve been around, young man. I’ve traveled the oceans in steam-powered vessels, eaten unnamed foods, felled beasts weighing several hundred pounds with a single four-ounce bullet. Yet, one thing remains a mystery to me: why a man of sound limb and some intelligence, however limited—why such a man would destroy the personal property of his beneficent employer? And in such an underhanded manner? Like a yellow-eyed jackal in the night. Son—and I do think of you as a son—I can only shake my head and pray that the skills you learned here at the plant will serve you in good stead in the state facility. Perhaps you can earn the odd cigarette now and again with whatever portion of your faculties has remained intact.
P.S. The automobile was a gift from my third wife in commemoration of the Company’s 50th Anniversary. Had you committed your deed in daylight, you would have observed that the interior was upholstered in our Cleveland Brown fabric, all Walkerized, of course.
They led me out of the factory in ice cold handcuffs. A deputy with a walkie-talkie and a high school ring asked me if I wanted to put my windbreaker—a size 40 Walker Weath-R-Bust-R—over my head. I declined his offer.
9 must have heard the ruckus, because he was off the line before the break, loitering around the soda machine with a cigarette jouncing between his lips.
“Watch this one, officer,” he said. “I’ve known him to steal communion wafers just so he could make little sandwiches for a week.”
A stone-faced lie, if ever there was one. At every communion service I’ve attended, the Body of Christ was always diced Wonderbread.
16—plain old 16 at that point—sashayed over to 9 and gave him a kiss like an Electrolux on the carpet setting. Noisy.
“We’re what you’d call an item,” she said. “Been going steady for five weeks, three-and-a-half days.” She was fooling with the Buick symbol at her throat when she said it. Smiling, too.
“That should work out nicely for everyone, then,” I said. “He can change the channels for you, and you can tie his shoes.”
9 came at me with a root beer bottle when he heard that, but the deputy and some of the Walker security boys held him back. They said things like It ain’t worth it and You’re bigger than that and Mr. Walker wouldn’t want a scene now, would he? 9 wasn’t having any of it, though.
“What do you have to say for yourself now?” he said. “I got the girl, I got my job—what do you got, peewee?”
I’ve got a few more digits now. These days, I’m 70481. If you don’t believe me, come on out during visiting hours. I’ll run a few card tricks by you, show you how to shine a watch crystal with toothpaste. You can read the back of my denim shirt.
Copyright E.A. Mayer