The Sum of My Existence - 3
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.