I’ll always remember Laura as the woman who made one of the hardest summers of my life harder.
It wasn’t enough that the nation-wide recession took its toll on our town and that the restaurant at which I’d been bartending was forced to close, due to lack of business; that I had to turn to a temporary labor agency to get work, doing dirty hack jobs that only the utterly desperate would accept, and being paid so badly for this work that I still had to go to the blood bank and give plasma four times a month to get by; that I shared a dump of an apartment with two people I wasn’t getting along with; that it was an especially hot and humid summer . . .
No, on top of all that I had to develop a lust-driven crush on a woman who didn’t seem the least bit interested in me.
Laura, her parents, her little sister (I thought), and their dog moved into a house adjacent to the apartment building in which I was living, about three months after I’d joined the neighborhood. I first saw Laura one late afternoon when I was coming home from work. I had just gotten off the city bus and was filthy from head to foot, having spent the day shoveling a tar-like substance out from underneath a barge at a naval shipyard. She was wearing a pair of shorts, which revealed legs that were shapely and tanned. Her shoulder-length, brown hair had nice, orange-y tints in it, apparently sun streaks. She had on a pair of tough-looking sunglasses, which hid eyes that I was sure were pretty. A cigarette dangled from her lips. She was reading a paperback book, the title of which I couldn’t make out from the distance that separated us.
When Laura felt the heat of my stare and looked up from her book to face me, she merely did so for just long enough to let me know that I wasn’t worth a full stare. Then she blew out a puff of cigarette smoke and returned to her reading.
It’d been almost a year since my latest girlfriend and I broke up. That splitting up was a tough one that left some damage inside me, but I was mostly over it now. I was ready to meet somebody new. Suddenly I had an idea of a somebody to fill that role.
For the next few days I walked the long way around the block when coming home from work. I figured that my chances of gaining Laura’s interest would be greatly diminished by the appearance I had when coming home from my dirty jobs. I wanted her to see me when I was freshly showered and wearing clean clothes.
So I waited until Saturday. I got up and, after having an argument with my two roommates about whose turn it was to clean the kitchen (they both said it was mine, which was typical), I drank three cups of coffee while listening to the Beastie Boys, then read a section of Proust. Then I took a shower, put on my favorite t-shirt and a clean pair of jeans, and headed out for a stroll through the neighborhood.
Laura wasn’t out on her porch that morning, though—not when I first walked past her house, nor on any of the three other occasions that I passed by that a.m. In the meantime, my day was going poorly in general. My roommates left the apartment near noon, laughing among each other and not having touched the filthy kitchen. The only thing that came in the mail was a cut-off warning from the gas company, and I didn’t have my third of the amount of money we owed them. I was starving by lunchtime, but all I had to eat was bread and cheese and a bag of potatoes, and cheese sandwiches and baked potatoes were all I’d eaten all week. I wanted to take myself out to lunch at a nice deli, but if I did that, I wouldn’t have money left over for the pint of bourbon I’d been looking forward to drinking that night.
I knew there was nothing to do but forget about Laura, forget about my roommates, forget about a deli lunch, and just force down a cheese sandwich and a baked potato, then get on my bike and ride to the ABC store for my pint. I did just that, and on the way back from the store the back tire of my bike went flat. I got off the bike and started to walk it home, but I was still over a mile from my building and the sun was pressing on my back. I opted to ride on the flat tire the rest of the way, even though I knew I would probably damage the rim, which I wouldn’t be able to replace.
The bike finally refused to move anymore with me on it around the time I got to the corner of my street. I hopped back off and pushed the rest of the way. By this time I was a sweaty mess. Of course, with me in that condition, Laura was out on her porch when I passed by her house.
Again, there were the shorts and the legs, the sun-tinged hair, the cool shades and the cigarette and the book. Against my better judgment, I indulged myself and looked at her as hard as I did that first time that I noticed her. Laura responded to this in much the same, dismissive way she had the time before, only this time she let her eyes roam to the flat tire on my bike, a sight which brought out a little smirk from her.
When I got home I took my bike to the back of the apartment complex and slung it against the building, then left it there with one of the pedals spinning furiously. Once inside the apartment and in my room, I kicked my copy of The Guermantes Way across the floor and called Marcel Proust a sissy out loud.
It was from one of my other neighbors—a Native American guy named Q, who once traded me a cheap watch for five cigarettes, and who told me that if I ever needed pills or pot or anything like that, check with him—that I found out Laura’s name. Q informed me that Laura’s father was a mechanic, and that the family moved to this area because of some financial problems they’d gotten into in the town they’d been living in previously. I also found out through Q that Laura was 22 (making her four years my junior), and that the little 4- or 5-year old girl who I assumed to be Laura’s sister was actually her daughter. Q had no information about the father of Laura’s child.
If I’d been thinking straight I would’ve let my interest in Laura drop right there. I wasn’t thinking straight then, though. I was lonely and horny.
On the first day of August, a day before my 27th birthday, I had an experience that put all the frustration I’d been experiencing of late over the top.
Over the 10 or 12 weeks that I’d gotten work through the labor agency, I came to know new and unwelcome levels of humility. I shoveled, scrubbed and swept insides of areas where no living being had any business being. I spent whole days lifting and hoisting disgusting-smelling, outrageously heavy bags of cocoa beans. I worked alongside, and under the supervision of, mean-spirited people with whom I had nothing in common, and who didn’t seem to care much for me. And I was made, by financial necessity, to believe that I was fortunate to get the work that came with these conditions.
But the assignment I got that Tuesday morning was too much, even for my newly-humble self.
Eight or ten of us were brought on to a barge at one of the shipyards. I had never previously been inside one of these vessels, had only worked outside of and under them. I was surprised and dismayed to find that, as nasty as the atmosphere usually was around those other areas of the barges, inside of them it was worse. It was dark in there, there wasn’t much elbow room, and there was dirt and muck everywhere. Worse than any of that, though, was the odor—toxic, gaseous fumes that made you feel stomach-sick when you breathed.
I would’ve hated doing the cleanest of jobs in that space, and the task we were given was far from clean. Inside the barge was an area divided into ten or twelve sorts of lanes. Each lane was about two feet wide and maybe fifty or seventy-five yards long, and separated from the next lane by a steel railing which stood maybe a half a foot high. At the front of the lanes was an opening that anyone could stand upright in, but starting about ten feet in, the lanes were roofed by metal ceilings which hung so low that anyone standing more than three feet tall would have to crawl or stoop down when under the ceiling.
And that was just we were expected to do that day: to go inside the lanes and, using a foxtail brush, a dustpan, a pick, and a bucket, stoop and crawl while cleaning out all the muck caked to the floor and walls of the lanes, back to front.
I am probably more claustrophobic than the average person. I wouldn’t say that I have this fear to a pathological extent, but I get a little sensation of nervousness any time I have to get in an elevator; and when I was still working the restaurant, I got slightly freaked out whenever I had to go into the walk-in refrigerator. But what I felt when I got on the inside of the lane, the one I was supposed to clean out, was something beyond mere claustrophobia.
It took me a long time to get myself to crawl to the back of the lane, which was what I decided I needed to do, as a way of trying to get past the fear of being in the space. I figured I would go all the way to the back, see and feel the worst of what it was like to be in there, then I would work my way toward the front, and things wouldn’t seem so bad as time wore on and I got closer and closer to the opening.
Once I got all the way back there, though, I felt no sense of relief or accomplishment whatsoever. I only felt demoralized, sick, and scared. I turned around so that I was facing forward, and was horrified to find that I couldn’t see the opening of the lane. A thought occurred to me at that point, a frightening thought: what if some of my co-workers decided to play a joke on me, by trapping me inside my lane for a while? They would find some object (maybe a stack of their buckets) to cover the opening to my lane, and when I saw what they were doing and started crying out, they would stand outside my lane, laughing.
That was too harrowing an image for me. I had to know, right at that moment, that I could get out of that lane, any time I wanted to. I scurried to the opening, my tools in hand, and when I got past the covered part of the lane, I stood up and breathed a sigh of relief.
The problem was, now that I was out from under there, it was going to be that much harder to crawl back inside. For a moment I thought of not going back in there, of making some excuse to tell the shipyard employee who was supervising us as to why I couldn’t complete that day’s work. But then I remembered how all the people around the labor agency office were always saying how bad it was for a guy to ever turn down work the agency got him; if there ever came a time when there were more men who wanted work than there were jobs to give out (and with the way the economy was going, that was an imminent possibility), such a guy was likely to get overlooked when the agency staff made the work rosters. As denigrating, and as poorly-paid, as this work was, it was all the gainful employment I had then. If I walked out on an available job, I might not even have that.
With those worries in mind, I tried once more to pull myself together and go into the lane and start working. But as I was making my way back to the rear end of the lane, I thought I heard somebody laughing on the outside. Certain that my premonition of my co-workers’ practical joke on me was becoming a reality, I panicked and turned back around and crawled back out the opening once more. Even when I saw that nobody was trying to block me in, and that all the other guys were busily cleaning out their own lanes and oblivious to me, I was done. Unemployment, starvation, sleeping on a cot at the Union Mission—if that was the punishment I would receive for skipping out on this job, so be it. I wasn’t going back in that lane. The shipyard supervisor guy looked at me disdainfully and told me to never come back there, when I handed him my tools and told him I couldn’t do the work. I didn’t even respond to him, just walked away from there and didn’t stop moving until I was on the bus.
I got home and slept, off and on, for the next twenty-four hours. I had a series of nightmares wherein I was always trapped inside of something, usually a dangerous place. Interspersed with these horror-filled images were dreams that had me trying to reach Laura, about to make some meaningful contact with her, but always being denied at the last moment.
I finally woke up for good and got out of bed a little before noon the following day. Amazingly, I felt pretty well, something like the way a person feels when they have spent the night before sweating out a nasty fever—dirty, sweat-soaked, but cleansed in a way. Both of my roommates were at work, so I was able to play the Beastie Boys at high volume while drinking a full pot of coffee. After that, I read a huge chunk of Proust.
I didn’t have any food in the house, so when I got hungry I decided to treat myself to a birthday lunch at a deli. When I got to the place—a favorite eatery of mine, which I hadn’t been to for months because I couldn’t afford to eat out now—I found Laura standing against the building, smoking and wearing the deli’s work uniform.
Laura didn’t have her sunglasses on, and I found that her eyes—the eyes which I imagined as being dreamy to look at—were beady, scared-looking little things. I could now tell that the tint in her hair was put there not by natural sunlight, but by something that came out of a bottle. Her fingers, which I’d never seen from up close before, were bony and knuckly.
“Hi, there. I’m Joe. I live down the street from you.”
Laura made a lazy half smile.
“Yeah, I’ve seen you out there. You had a flat tire on your bike once. I’m Laura.”
The next time I saw Laura was six weeks or so later. By that time I’d gotten a new bartending job at a club that managed to stay busy despite the financial hard times. I got away from my roommates and moved into a studio apartment of my own. I was sitting out on the stoop of the apartment building on a morning in early fall, reading a Jason Starr novel, when I heard a motorcycle approach. I looked up and saw that a guy who seemed to be about my age was driving the bike, and that Laura was seated behind him, holding him tightly. They had to stop for a second at a street corner. Laura looked over at me when they were paused. She smiled. She had shorts on. I noticed again how nice her legs looked. I waved at her. As they sped off, Laura kicked her legs out and swung them a few times.
Brian Greene writes short stories, personal essays, and critical pieces on books, music, and film. His features on noir fiction and films have been published online by Criminal Element, Crime Reads, Literary Hub, The Strand, Crime Time, Crimeculture, Mulholland Books, and others, and in print by Stark House Press, PM Press, and Paperback Parade. Brian lives in Durham, North Carolina with his wife and their two daughters. His writing blog is http://briangreenewriter.blogspot.com/ and he’s on Twitter @greenes_circles.