By Michael Onofrey
A corrugated awning, extending out from the side of the warehouse, provides shade. Mid-September and hot, and it’ll remain that way for another month. But still, people take their breaks outside. Maybe because they want to smoke or maybe because the warehouse has no windows or maybe because they want to be sociable because other people take their breaks outside. The six picnic tables and their accompanying benches under the corrugated awning get a lot of use. The tables and benches are anchored to a slab of concrete because sometimes there are fierce winds.
The awning is substantially secured as well, as are trashcans. When it’s windy people don’t take their breaks outside. There’s a lunchroom inside the warehouse. Vending machines are in the lunchroom. There are no vending machines outside.
Danny and Marlene purchase instant coffee from a vending machine and go outside, a Thursday, three-thirty in the afternoon, no wind. A large thermometer on the shady side of one of the awning’s supports registers eighty-eight degrees.
Danny and Marlene take their afternoon break thirty minutes after everyone else because Danny covers “will call” and Marlene covers the phones while everyone else is on their break, which is from three o’clock to three-fifteen. Marlene, though, only started covering the phones for the afternoon break since she got back from her vacation in mid-August. Before that, Mark Bane covered the phones, and he still does for the morning break and for lunchtime. Mark, though, never ventures outside. Mark utilizes the lunchroom, which means Danny’s alone for the morning break and for lunchtime because he covers “will call” for those times too, the same as he does for the afternoon break. Danny always goes outside. When the weather’s bad he sits in the cab of his pickup truck.
With Marlene’s arrival at Danny’s picnic table in mid-August, Danny’s “alone” status changed for the afternoon break. In addition, Danny started participating in fifteen-minute conversations with Marlene on a Monday-through-Friday basis, which, by nature of the situation, meant private conversations because only Danny and Marlene were outside from three-thirty to three forty-five.
It’s an auto-parts warehouse and it’s situated in the Mojave Desert in the vicinity of Victorville. I-15, main route between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, is nearby. From the picnic tables under the corrugated awning a view of widely spaced creosote on the desert’s pan can be seen. On one of those first occasions when Marlene joined Danny at a picnic table, Danny used the word “appreciate” in referring to the view.
“From here,” said Danny, “we can appreciate the desert.” He waved a hand/arm to indicate. Marlene seemed to take an interest in this remark, for she half-smiled. Perhaps the half-smile indicated amusement.
Marlene is thirty-nine years old, Danny forty-one. This has been established, for they’ve talked about their respective ages. In the past month they’ve talked about a lot of things—living arrangements, job satisfaction, divorce, eating and drinking habits. They’ve also talked about Marlene’s vacation, a two-week European sojourn. In Danny’s five years at the warehouse this was the first time he heard of someone from the warehouse going to Europe for their vacation. Most people vacationed closer to home, if they vacationed at all. Thus, Marlene’s European vacation was moderately big news, and it was only “moderately big news” because truly big news was when someone got arrested for beating his wife nearly to death, case in point Tom Finn. Not only was that “big news” but it also created an instant job vacancy. Another example of “big-news”-slash-“instant job vacancy” was when Carol Faye got in an automobile accident on Pearblossom Highway, a head-on collision, which resulted in Carol’s death. Drama of a shocking nature was what constituted “big news.” Marlene’s trip to Europe was only “moderately” big news. Nevertheless, it initiated comment.
“Hey, Marlene went to Europe for her vacation.”
“You mean like France and those kinds of places?”
According to what Danny heard from people in the warehouse, Marlene had visited London, Amsterdam and Paris, and in those cities she took in the art, as in fine art, by way of famous museums. But during that first week when Marlene came out to take her break with Danny at a picnic table, Marlene told Danny that she had gone to Greece, which was where she spent her entire two-week vacation. Danny noticed the discrepancy right away and was about to bring it to Marlene’s attention, but Marlene continued on without pause, perhaps purposely, by saying she had gone to a couple of Greek islands and had found the beaches on those islands “marvelous.” On the heels of “marvelous” there came a half-smile, after which Marlene brought her cup of instant coffee to her pinkish lips, which had flecks of dried skin embedded in pink lipstick, for the climate of the Mojave Desert encouraged chapped lips. Danny’s lips, too, were chapped, but there was no lipstick.
Marlene raising her cup of instant coffee and looking at Danny while she sipped prompted Danny to raise his cup of instant coffee and sip. So in response to the two versions of Marlene’s vacation, Danny was mute, for he intuitively deemed it more interesting and more prudent to remain silent, especially when he saw a look of collusion on Marlene’s face. After swallowing their respective sips of instant coffee and placing their paper cups back down on the table, Danny half-smiled himself, which caused Marlene to look at Danny’s countenance with keen interest, for Danny’s half-smile was crooked on his face.
“Why do you smile like that?”
“I fell off a swing when I was four years old. A nerve in my neck got pinched, or so I was told. The left side of my face can’t move. It’s paralyzed. Whenever I smile or laugh, the right side moves, but the left side doesn’t.”
“Oh . . .” Marlene responded with hesitancy, but then said, “You know, I think this is the first I’ve seen you smile. Could you do it again?”
A prominent feature of Danny and Marlene’s break-time conversations was that they never went beyond fifteen minutes. Morning and afternoon breaks were fifteen minutes long, and they were timed by the warehouse manager, Phil Kent. Phil employed a cooking timer. A button on the wall near Phil’s desk set a buzzer off in the lunchroom and outside. Phil was diligent. Even for two people, Phil timed the breaks. And so, Marlene and Danny’s conversations were often severed due to Phil’s diligence, which in turn put a fifteen-minute cap on Marlene and Danny’s conversations. The next day they sometimes picked up where they had left off the previous day, but often they didn’t, forgetfulness or the urgency of a new topic coming to bear.
Another development, or consequence, of those fifteen-minute conversations was that one topic would often drift, or knife, into another, no single topic or subject fully explored. Perhaps, subconsciously or consciously, Danny and Marlene felt pressured to get in and out of a topic quickly. Beyond that, though, skipping from one topic to another, while merely skimming the surface of a topic, was how people usually talked, television and maybe the Internet having spawned this sort of communication. Danny was acutely aware of this superficiality, for it was one of the reasons he no longer had a television. Danny’s “no TV” status was nearing the end of its fifth year, for it had begun just after Danny moved from Los Angeles to the desert. A fragmented conversation between Marlene and Danny had touched on this.
“No TV? Really?”
Another consequence relating to truncated conversations with Marlene was that Danny would often continue these conversations in his head while driving home from work. He might also continue one or more of them at home while eating dinner or washing dishes or bird watching from the diminutive patio next to his single-wide mobile home that was on the backside of a huge mobile home park. A chain-link fence, marking the perimeter of the mobile home park, was fifteen feet away from Danny’s abode, which meant that Danny had an unobscured view of the desert, save for incidental chain-link. In effect, it was pretty much like the view from the picnic tables under the corrugated awning next at work.
Also, on weekends, there’d be the past week’s five fifteen-minute partial conversations to mull over. Since Danny kept a cat he would sometimes verbalized his thoughts in the cat’s presence, Marlene the subject of those thoughts. The cat seemed a good listener. Perhaps Marlene did this as well, for she kept a cat too. This had been discussed, briefly, Danny and Marlene, each with a cat.
Part of Danny’s thinking about these break-time conversations encompassed assumption, which, on occasion, would swell into full-blown stories featuring Marlene and Danny. This, in itself, was not surprising. Nevertheless, there was the danger of assuming too much, of building things up. So, to remedy this, Danny concluded that what he needed to do was to ask Marlene out on a date. Dinner at a quiet restaurant, for example, would not only lift the fifteen-minute time limit, but would also provide a congenial atmosphere for exploring possibilities beyond assumption and speculation. In other words, Danny wanted to make things real.
He has mentioned getting together after work, maybe dinner, “or something like that,” and is waiting for Marlene’s reaction/reply.
“I thought you’d never ask.”
This came with a half-smile on Marlene’s face, which put a full smile on Danny’s face, albeit a crooked one. Danny was about to pursue the topic, but Marlene picked up instead.
“I like to mate with more than one male at a time. If you could get a friend or two . . .” She half-smiled again.
Danny had thought he had considered all contingencies, but now he understood that he hadn’t. Just to make sure he was hearing right, he said, “Mate with more than one male at a time?”
“Yes. It’s the next step up on the pleasure ladder without reverting to contraband or alcohol.”
Danny was looking at Marlene’s average-looking face with renewed interest, for it seemed that a significant shift was in motion.
“But of course not everyone prefers this,” Marlene said. “Personal predilection, social taboos and so forth.”
Marlene was more articulate than Danny had figured. He watched her raise her cup of instant coffee to her mildly chapped lips.
At six-two, Danny was rangy. He thought of himself as “average,” as in “regular,” “a regular sort of guy,” and he thought of Marlene in the same way, “a regular sort of gal.” Marlene was an inch or two shy of six feet, so the term “rangy” might’ve fit Marlene as well. In Danny’s mind, assumptions churning, there was something about Marlene’s torso and the fullness of her lips and the slight bulginess of her eyes that brought large areolas into Danny’s thoughts. Probably there were certain things about Danny that triggered assumptions on Marlene’s part regarding how Danny might look with his clothes off. These kinds of thoughts were only natural, or “normal.”
Danny and Marlene had average-like jobs and average-like pickup trucks and average-like looks.
They were middle-aged, which also suggested “average” or “regular” or “normal.”
Danny raised his cup of instant coffee.
“Naturally discretion is important,” Marlene said. “I wouldn’t want you to invite anyone from the warehouse. You know how things are here, everyone talking in a juvenile, narrow-minded way.”
Danny swallowed his sip of coffee.
“Individually, people here are okay, but as a group, particularly when they get to talking, it’s a different story,” Marlene said. “I think I’ve mentioned this. You’re taciturn, and that’s one of the reasons I started covering the phones during the afternoon break.”
Danny nodded, a conversational response, yet there was also the acknowledgement of arithmetic, as in putting two and two together. The only stumbling block was “taciturn.” Danny was pretty sure Marlene hadn’t used the word “taciturn” before, for if she had Danny would have noted it and would have looked it up in a dictionary at home to make sure he understood its meaning.
“A couple of your friends,” Marlene said. “That’s what I have in mind. You know, maybe a pizza, sit around in your living room, get acquainted, and then . . .”
Danny nodded as if to signify he was getting the picture.
A raven cawed from out of the hot sky. There were two ravens that hung out in the vicinity of the warehouse. Obviously it was their territory, male and female, a couple, for that’s how adult ravens were, a couple staking an area and defending it. Danny had determined this with the aid of a pair of binoculars that he employed during his thirty-minute lunchbreaks, sandwich and cup of instant coffee at hand. On a couple of occasions someone had come out from the warehouse to ask him a job-related question and had seen the binoculars and had asked Danny about them, which was how Danny was awarded the moniker: “The Bird Man.” A glancing thought said something about more arithmetic: “The Bird Man,” eating lunch alone under a corrugated awning, sum of which resulted in “taciturn.”
“I can’t think of any friends who’d . . . I don’t have any friends around here.”
“You don’t? You mean, you don’t have any friends?”
“Well, I have some friends in the Valley, the San Fernando Valley, but they’re married and have kids and . . . You know, they’re settled down.”
He was stalled, and it seemed he needed a rerun of “So?” Running it through his mind to ascertain ramifications took a couple of moments, after which he looked at Marlene, who looked at her wristwatch.
Danny had plenty to think about on his way home on that noteworthy Thursday in mid-September. Fortunately there were only a couple of roads to navigate, traffic light. He drove as if on automatic.
His cat came out from under the single-wide to greet him. He was always happy to see the cat, see that she had survived the day, for there were coyotes in the area that sometimes got people’s pets. He was also happy to see the cat because she was waiting for him, or seemed to be, kind of like someone waiting for him to come home. The cat’s name was Audubon, which was kind of a joke, for the cat was interested in birds, but fortunately it never got any, or at least none that Danny had seen. A pair of ravens that frequented the area were out of the question regarding feline prey, too big and too fierce, and the same for a roadrunner that dashed about just beyond the chain-link fence, too big and too quick and too smart. White-winged doves inhabited the locale, sparrows as well, but in the immediate precinct of Danny’s mobile home those birds were scarce. Mice? Yes, Audubon would sometimes show up with a mouse. Lizards, too, were playful game for the cat.
The cat’s backstory began with the backstory of the single-wide, both of which were tied to Danny fleeing the San Fernando Valley, which was the same as fleeing his divorce, and then showing up at his friend’s mobile home in the Mojave Desert, a little over an hour’s drive from what haunted Danny in the eastern sector of the Valley. There was a job opening at the auto-parts warehouse where Danny’s friend, Rudy Davies, worked. Rudy was old friend from the old neighborhood in the East Valley. Danny could sleep on the couch in Rudy’s single-wide until Danny found a place. A month after Danny’s arrival, though, Rudy left for Las Vegas. A friend of Rudy’s, a contractor in the painting business, needed workers. The money was good and Las Vegas was a lot more exciting than Victorville. Maybe Danny wanted to give production painting in Vegas a try as well? No, Danny didn’t. Danny liked the normality of the warehouse job. He also liked the quiet of the undeveloped desert as it nudge up against the backside of the mobile home park where Rudy’s single-wide was spotted, vacant spaces on either side of Rudy’s space.
“Oh, sure,” Rudy said. “You can make payments. I’ll sell you the single-wide cheap.”
Two days after Rudy’s departure, Danny found a kitten stumbling around on the pebbled ground near the chain-link fence, a blistering August afternoon. The cat was a tricolored calico, female.
Danny had the cat spayed and she eventually became Audubon in conjunction with Danny’s newfound hobby—bird watching. Danny was changing—open meetings at AA, binoculars and Audubon field guides, TV unplugged. Rudy showed up one weekend in October to take the set off of Danny’s hands. These lifestyle changes seemed natural in the way they evolved in the wake of Danny’s divorce, which coincided with escaping the East Valley and its car alarms, pit bulls, backyard parties, and helicopters in the night with searchlights. Insistent bumper-to-bumper congestion on freeways was left behind, too. Simplification and downsizing were the general formula of Danny’s new regimen. Within six months he felt the benefits of the makeover that had taken on the posture of an adventure. But there were drawbacks, such as aloneness, which occasionally morphed into loneliness. Boredom as well made itself felt. Thus, the adventure had its challenges, and in meeting those challenges there came bird watching and reading and drawing and watercolors. Danny felt he was pursuing sanity, yet if he were to tell people at the warehouse about this, “sanity” wouldn’t have been the diagnosis.
He sat out on the patio with a glass of iced tea and a pair of binoculars and the cat. A lingering pastel sunset stretched across the sky. The day’s no-wind status remained. In about a month it’d be fall in the desert, vivid shadows, pleasant temperatures, wonderful air.
Weren’t all the hints and innuendoes there—clothing optional beaches, open-minded people, fun, nature, naturist? What could Danny have been thinking about?
Before going out to the patio he had gone to a bookshelf in his living room and had looked up “taciturn” in a dictionary. He also looked up “naturist.”
Yes, he had been thinking of erotica, but his version of this involved romance—dinners, movies, vacations, plans. They had so much in common, Danny and Marlene. But now . . . Funny how everything Marlene had said was coming together differently now. A different story was emerging and Danny was trying to adjust to it, but it wasn’t easy. He would need to change in order to accommodate this new version of Marlene.
Stars began in the eastern sky. He hadn’t lifted the binoculars. Conclusions and answers and solutions were elusive, except that he really didn’t have any friends he could ask to participate in this. So what was he to do? Walk around the mobile home park with the purpose of meeting someone and saying: “Hey, how would you, and maybe a buddy of yours, like to come over to my place for pizza and I’ll introduce you to a woman who likes to ‘mate with more than one male at a time?’ No alcohol or drugs, though. Maybe some iced tea or ginger ale. There’ll be a supply of condoms.”
Cups of instant coffee, awning overhead, three-thirty in the afternoon, weather a rerun of the day before, but now it was Friday.
“I thought about what you said yesterday, and I really can’t come up with anyone who might want to participate in what you have in mind.”
She sips her coffee.
“You know, I was thinking of maybe dinner, like at that Szechuan restaurant over by I-15.”
She looks at him.
“We could talk and . . . Well, you know . . .”
“We’ve been talking for a month.”
“Yeah, I know, but it hasn’t been real talk. It’s been . . .”
“What do you mean, it hasn’t been real talk? We’ve covered just about everything. What else is there to talk about? Don’t you think it’s time we moved beyond talk?”
“Yes, and that’s what I have in mind—dinner at a nice restaurant, the two of us, and . . .”
“Ah, huh. Well, I’ve expressed my needs and desires. What more is there to say?”
He sits, and he has this feeling he’s about to speak.
Marlene raises her cup of instant coffee. Danny raises his cup of instant coffee. They sip. They lower their cups. Marlene’s gaze goes out toward the desert.
“It’s going to be nice weather in about a month,” Danny says. “Fall in the desert—it’s my favorite time of year.”
Marlene’s eyes dart to touch on Danny’s face, but then her hazel irises returning to the desert, a landscape she hasn’t shown much interest in until now. The clock is ticking, but it’s a different kind of ticking. Danny looks at his wristwatch.
About the Author:
Michael Onofrey’s stories have appeared in Cottonwood, Evansville Review, Natural Bridge, Road to Nowhere and Other New Stories from the Southwest (anthology, University of New Mexico Press), Terrain.org, and Weber – The Contemporary West, as well as in other fine places. A novel, “Bewilderment,” was recently brought out by Tailwinds Press.