The Sum of My Existence - 6

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VI

 

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.